Liability For Dog Attacks

Statistics show that dog attack claims are rapidly on the rise. Because these claims often involve children and the injuries may result in permanent scarring, there is the potential for a sizeable recovery. Prompt and thorough investigation is a must, as is knowledge of the relevant statutes and case law. Here are some tips for investigating and defending dog attack claims in Maryland.

Dog Attack Cases on the Rise. Why should you be interested in dog-bite claims? Consider these facts. The number of people seeking treatment for dog bites increased 37% from 1987 to 1997. The dog population during that period rose only 2%. Roughly half of those victims were children. In 1994, 4.7 million people were bitten by dogs. From 1995 through 1997, 36 people died from dog attacks. Twenty-nine of those were children.

What does the Claimant Have to Prove? In Maryland, an owner of a dog is liable for injuries caused by the dog when the owner exercises "ineffective control" of the animal. The amount of control that the owner needs to exert depends upon what notice that the owner has that his/her dog may attack. Some degree of control is always necessary because of the leash laws that exist in almost every county in Maryland. The owner is on notice that his/her dog may attack if the dog has gone after an individual, strained at the leash, growls, borne its teeth or tried to jump a fence to attack a person. Once the dog exhibits this kind of behavior, the owner must take steps to ensure that the dog is not able to break loose and attack another person. Maryland does not recognize the "one bite" rule.

Leash Laws Are A Problem. The leash laws in Maryland require that dogs be restrained and not permitted to run "at large". The Courts in Maryland have recognized that the purpose of a leash law is to protect the public at large from attacks by various animals, including dogs. Accordingly, a claimant may use the violation of the leash law alone to establish a prima facie case for negligence. Where the leash law has been violated, the owner need not have had any notice that their dog was prone to attack.

Claimant's Status is Important. In dog bite cases, as in all premises liability cases, it is important to determine why the visitor was on the premises. Unlike other negligence actions, the standard of care that applies to the owner will vary depending on the visitor's status. There are four categories of visitors. First, an "invitee" is, as the name implies, somebody invited onto the premises by the owner. There is typically some mutual benefit for the owner and visitor. A property owner owes a duty to an invitee to keep the premises safe and to protect the invitee from dangerous situations that they would not know about on his own. Second, the "social guest" is somebody who has been invited onto the premises by the owner for social purposes. The owner has to exercise the same care and take the same precautions for the social guest as they would for their own family. The owner must warn the social guest of any known dangerous conditions. Third, a " bare licensee" is one who is allowed onto the owner's property but is there for their own purpose. The owner is only obligated to avoid entrapping or purposefully injuring the bare licensee. Fourth, a "trespasser" is an individual that comes onto the property without the knowledge or consent of the property owner. The standard of care that the owner owes to a trespasser is the same as that for a bare licensee.

The Option of Strict Liability. Strict liability is liability without fault on the part of the dog owner. Maryland recognizes that a dog owner may be held liable even though he took adequate precautions to control the animal. Strict liability applies when the owner has prior notice that the dog has vicious propensities. The gist of strict liability is that an owner should be liable for keeping an animal after knowledge of its mischievous propensities. Prior occasions on which the dog has attempted to attack others may be enough to put the owner on notice of the dog's tendency to attack. A dog's propensity to chase or attack other animals does not put an owner on notice that the dog may attack another person.

Investigative Tips. When the victim of a dog bite submits a claim for recovery, prompt investigation is critical. This is particularly true in the more serious cases where the animal may be put to sleep before it can be evaluated. Below are some investigative tools that I have found helpful in investigating a dog attack claim.

  • Talk to neighbors.
  • Interview the veterinarian.
  • Get a medical history for the dog.
  • Obtain records from Animal Control.
  • Investigate the scene.
  • Review obedience/training school records.
  • In larger cases, evaluate the dog.
  • Obtain police/ambulance reports.

Mr. Willging is an associate in the firm's Litigation Department. For additional information please contact him at (410)783-6364 or [email protected]