attackAnimal Attacks — An Overview

Every year, millions of Americans are bitten by animals. In fact, last year over five million people were bitten by dogs alone. In many cases, a person bitten by an animal has a legal right to recover damages from the animal’s owner or another responsible party.

What should you do if you are bitten by an animal?

The first thing you should do if you are bitten by an animal is to seek medical attention immediately. If you are not treated, an animal bite can cause serious injury and even death. Once you have been medically evaluated, you should also consider consulting with a lawyer experienced in animal bite cases. An attorney will be able to tell you whether you have a legal claim, and what damages you may be able to recover.

If you are bitten, at a minimum, you should gather the name and phone number of the animal’s owner. If you don’t have this information, a neighbor or a witness might be able to provide it to you. Also, if there were witnesses, you should get their names and contact information as well.

What is an owner’s liability for an animal attack?

If an animal bites you, the first thing to determine is: who is the owner of the animal? In North Carolina, the owner of an animal can be held liable for the injuries it inflicts, provided that the owner knew (or had reason to know) that the animal had “dangerous propensities.”

In other words, if an animal owner knows that his or her animal is dangerous and could cause injury to a person, the animal owner can be held liable for the animal’s harmful actions.

Determining whether an owner knew of an animal’s “dangerous propensities” can be difficult. The first question that often arises in making this determination is whether the owner needs to know of the particular animal’s potential for harm, or whether the owner only needs to know that type of animal is potentially harmful. For example, when a person has a pit bull as a pet, does that mean the owner knows or should know the pet will be harmful, just because, in general, pit bulls can be harmful?

Most courts have ruled that an animal owner is responsible for knowing both the particular and general potential for his animal to cause harm. Thus, even if a pit bull owner had never seen his pet act viciously, he might still be held responsible for an attack by the dog because of the propensity of pit bulls in general to be aggressive animals. In such a situation, the owner is said to have “constructive notice” of the animal’s vicious propensities.

Additionally, sometimes an animal’s vicious propensity may be inferred from the circumstances of the attack. For instance, if a trained guard dog attacks someone, a judge or court could infer that the owner knew or should have known the dog would attack someone who entered the area the dog was guarding.

What are an owner’s potential defenses in an animal attack case?

There are instances in which an owner of a vicious animal might not be held liable for an attack by the animal. For example, if the animal owner adequately warned other people that the animal was dangerous and took measures to keep the animal away from people, a person who ignored the owner’s warnings and was injured by the animal might not successfully sue the owner. In legal terms, the injured person’s behavior is known as “contributory negligence” or “assumption of the risk.” An injured person is contributorily negligent when he or she fails to exercise the degree of care for his or her safety that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances. For example, if a person climbs over a fence and is bitten by a dog on the other side, a jury could decide not to hold the dog owner liable if they believed that a normal person would not have climbed over the wall in the first place.

An animal owner might also escape liability if the injured person “assumed the risk” of an attack by the animal. If the owner can show that the person bitten by his or her animal had actual knowledge of the risk of injury from the animal, but voluntarily exposed him or herself to that risk anyway, a court can bar the injured person from recovering damages. For example, if the owner puts up a “Beware of Dog” sign, and a person ignores this sign and gets bitten by the dog, the owner might not be responsible for that person’s injury. If the animal owner is claiming either “assumption of risk” or “contributory negligence.” However, the owner has the burden of convincing the jury of these arguments.

An animal owner can also argue that the injured person provoked the animal and this may be a way for the owner to avoid liability. For example, if a person makes a threatening gesture toward an animal and the animal attacks, this action could negate the owner’s liability.

The relationship between the owner and the injured person can also affect the owner’s liability. For example, if the owner invites someone over to his/her property, and the invited person (known legally as an “invitee”) is injured, the owner can be held responsible if he/she did not warn the invitee of the potential danger of the dog. On the other hand, if someone is trespassing on the owner’s property, the owner will probably not be liable for animal bites sustained by the trespasser, unless the injury is intentionally caused by the owner.

Who else can be held responsible for an animal attack?

Animal owners are not the only people who can be held responsible for animal bites. Here are a few common scenarios where someone other than an animal owner could be held liable for an animal bite:

  • Animal Keepers: Anyone who is responsible for the care or custody of an animal may be considered an owner or keeper and can be held responsible for an animal bite. Examples include kennels, a pound or an animal sitter.
  • Parents of Minors: Even if a person under 18 years of age owns the animal at issue, in many states, an injured person can bring a legal claim against the minor’s parents, even if the parents had no involvement with the animal.
  • Property Owners: A property owner can be liable for injuries caused by an animal the property owner has allowed onto his or her property.
  • Landlords: If an apartment landlord knew (or should have known) that a tenant owned a dangerous animal, the landlord may also be liable for animal bite injuries.

What damages can you recover for an animal attack?

Depending on the seriousness of your injuries resulting from an animal attack, you may be entitled to recover for:

  • Medical expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering
  • Property damage.

In some instances, you may also be entitled to punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded to punish someone for his or her behavior. To justify an award of punitive damages, the wrongdoer’s conduct usually must be more than negligent, such as reckless or intentional conduct. For example, if a dog owner knew his dog was very dangerous, yet repeatedly allowed the dog to run free near a school, and the dog eventually attacked a child, a jury could conclude that punitive damages were appropriate. The amount of punitive damages is not necessarily related to the actual damages one sustains but, rather, to how outrageous the animal owner’s actions were.

What’s the bottom line in an animal attack case?

If an animal has bitten you, you may be entitled to recover damages as a result of this injury. However, determining your legal rights can be complicated. It may be unclear who you should bring a claim against and to what sort of damages you are entitled. To ensure that you receive just compensation, you should contact an experienced attorney who has dealt with numerous animal bite cases in the past. Thom Goolsby has over 20 years of experience handling animal bite cases. Call or text Thom Goolsby right now at (910) 763-3339 or email him at Thom@GoolsbyLaw.com.