Man's Best Friend: Who is Responsible for Dog Attacks?
By Gerri Elder
Have you ever flinched at the sound of an angry, barking dog? Have you ever felt uncomfortable about living in the same neighborhood with a large animal constantly off its leash? There is good reason to be wary. According to the Centers for Disease Control, someone in America is treated for a dog bite injury every forty seconds.
Dogs are Americans' favorite pets, but plenty of dangerous animals are mixed in with the good ones. Compared to most other types of pets, the large size of some dogs poses a unique risk to dog owners and those who live and play nearby. As dog attacks become more common, people are asking questions about what can be done to prevent them.
Are there breeds more prone to violence than others? Maybe. While stereotypically "violent" dogs such as pit bulls and Dobermans account for a large percentage of dog attacks, the harmless-looking Dachshund (popularly known as the "wiener dog") is also high on the list of offenders. Some towns and cities are considering nuisance dog ordinances that would allow animal control officers to penalize the owners of dogs who threaten other people, regardless of whether or not an attack actually occurs.
Attacks occur in surprising numbers. According to the American Insurance Association, insurance companies paid $317 million in dog bite insurance claims last year. Dog bites fall within the liability segment of a homeowner's policy, and some insurance companies have begun charging significantly higher rates if the policyholder owns a dog whose species is on the list of "common offenders."
In one recent case, an Illinois woman claims she was jogging when a pit bull attacked her without provocation. The animal had apparently escaped its owner's house. Her ankle was bitten, and she fell to the ground. The bitten jogger filed a personal injury case against the dog's owner for $50,000 in damages. Questions remain about the case. Some states do not find a dog to be dangerous until it has attacked more than once, acknowledging that even the most trained and controlled animals may sometimes attack for no reason. If the defendant in the Illinois case was aware of her dog's violent tendencies and was careless in securing it, she may have to pay damages to the victim.
As with many types of accidents, there is no clear-cut definition of fault in a dog attack. Did the person attacked provoke the dog? Where was the owner when the attack occurred? Does the dog have a history of unprovoked violence? In the end, a civil jury may have to answer these questions during a personal injury trial. However, the one constant in many attacks is an irresponsible owner.
While municipalities debate whether or not to assume certain types of dogs are more dangerous than others, the amount of money paid out to cover the cost of these attacks every year suggests a more obvious problem. Many owners are not taking the proper steps to keep their animals controlled and their neighbors safe. Most cases are settled--often through an insurance claim--before a court battle is necessary, but in the end, the law holds people, not animals, responsible for the harm that their pets cause.