Legal Guide

The Dark Side of Pandemic Pets

The nation’s largest homeowners insurance company expects dog bite claims to significantly increase in 2021.

State Farm representative and Dog Bite Prevention Coordinator Heather Paul said that most dogs, like most people, do not like change. As coronavirus pandemic restrictions ease, some dogs are interacting with people outside their own homes for the first time. People have coping mechanisms when their lives change. Dogs normally lash out. “All of those dogs that were adopted and fostered because people were home, they were lonely, they had time - those dogs have not really had the chance to go out and meet other people or other dogs,” she explained.

In 2020, State Farm paid over $157 million to settle dog bite injury claims. No one is sure how high this figure could soar in 2021.

Dog Bite Injuries

In many situations, such as a large dog attacking a small child, the resulting physical and emotional injuries are catastrophic and permanent.

Physically, when a large dog knocks over a vulnerable victim, like an older adult or small child, the victim often sustains a serious head injury, along with multiple broken bones. Then, when dogs use their teeth, the physical injuries are often gruesome. These wounds leave lasting physical scars, as well as lasting emotional scars. More on that below.

First, a few words about dog bite infections. These wounds have very high infection rates. Pasteurella, Staph, Strep, and Capnocytophaga infections are the usual suspects. If the victim has a pre-existing condition or particular vulnerability, the infection could be worse than the bite. And that’s pretty bad.

Frequently, dog bite infections involve medical negligence, such as an unreasonable treatment delay or improper course of action. If that’s the case, a Philadelphia injury lawyer must normally file a separate legal claim for damages.

These damages usually include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. However, as outlined below, Pennsylvania dog bite laws are quite complex, so the available compensation varies.

Emotionally, many victims, especially younger victims, experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-type symptoms, such as hypervigilance (an unnatural fear of all dogs), depression, anger, and flashbacks. These symptoms, and others like them, make it difficult or impossible to function.

Contrary to popular myth, PTSD is a permanent brain injury. Severe trauma alters brain chemistry. Fortunately, a combination of surgery and therapy can virtually eliminate the symptoms in many cases.

How a Philadelphia Injury Lawyer Establishes Liability

As mentioned, dog bite law in the Keystone State is rather complex. Lawmakers have tried to strike a balance between pet owner interests and victim interests.

Pennsylvania has a limited strict liability law. Owners are liable for medical expenses if their animals attack, even if they did not know the animal was potentially dangerous. Medical bills are usually, by far, the largest single component of economic damages in a dog bite claim. Additionally, from a legal standpoint, these claims are often straightforward. It’s normally a bad idea to take the easy way out. But in this situation, a Philadelphia injury lawyer might recommend it. Many dog bites are so horrifying that victims are eager to get their bills paid and put the incident behind them.

To obtain additional compensation for noneconomic losses, an alternative, albeit more complex, legal theory might be available. Some examples include:

  • Scienter (Knowledge): Pennsylvania animal owners are liable for both economic and noneconomic losses if their animals attack someone and they knew, or should have known, that the animal was dangerous. Evidence on this point includes prior aggressive behavior and pre-bite behavior, such as vicious barking or sudden lunging.
  • Ordinary Negligence: Essentially, negligence is a lack of care. Usually, an ordinary negligence dog bite claim involves a non-owner. For example, it’s negligent for a teacher to permit small children to play near a strange dog.
  • Negligence Per Se: This doctrine involves a violation of a safety law, such as a leash or fence law. If an owner violates this law, and that violation substantially causes injury, the owner could be liable for economic and noneconomic damages. These actions are rather tricky because the law must protect certain people, as opposed to the public at large.

The so-called Dog Law is an offshoot of negligence per se. Owners are liable for all damages if the animal caused a “severe injury,” a phrase which is rather poorly defined.

Two Common Insurance Company Defenses

The provocation defense is available in all claims, including strict liability claims. Assumption of the risk is a negligence defense.

Provocation is always an intentional act. Moreover, it’s usually a physical act. Victims cannot move suddenly and accidentally provoke dogs. Owners should be able to control animals in these situations. Furthermore, from a legal standpoint, provocation is basically self-defense. The insurance company must prove that the victim inflicted so much pain on the animal that it had to react violently in order to defend itself.

Because provocation is so narrow and so complicated, certain victims, such as young children, cannot provoke a dog as a matter of law.

Assumption of the risk usually hinges on a warning sign, like “Beware of Dog.” But a sign is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Insurance company lawyers must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the victim saw the sign, could read it, and could understand what the sign meant. As mentioned, many dog bite victims are older adults with poor vision or young children with limited reading comprehension skills.

About the Author

John Mattiacci is an award-winning personal injury lawyer who represents victims in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He focuses on vehicle collisions, slip-and-fall injuries, medical malpractice, and other negligence claims. Click here to learn more about John.

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