Please note that this is an informational blog. I accept no professional responsibility for this blog, and it is not intended to be a treatise on this subject matter. A person with an injury claim should consult my firm or another attorney about aspect their personal injury matter.
Dogs and other animals can be lovable. Yet as a lawyer who has worked on various personal injury cases involving dog bites and attacks over the years, I have seen innocent people get seriously injured by dogs. Here are some tips and basic information about dog bite matters in Washington state. This blog is certainly not going to cover all aspects of Washington dog bite law.
First, if you own a dog it is a very good idea to ensure that dog bite matters and related risks are covered and indemnified as part of your homeowners or similar insurance policy. As a dog owner, you don't want to have a situation where you lack insurance and may be personally on the hook for a large judgment to a dog bite victim. If the value of a claim exceeds the applicable policy limits, the dog owner can be liable for the excess amount beyond insurance. It is a good idea to purchase an insurance policy with large policy limits to cover yourself against risks and problems that can arise. Here is a helpful CNBC article with more information about dog bite insurance policies.
Common sense ways to try to avoid liability
I don't claim to be a dog trainer or expert, but there are also some common sense things that you can do to minimize the chances of your dog injuring somebody. Keeping your dog on a leash when appropriate, making sure that your dog does not get out when it should not, keeping your dog away from small children, enrolling your dog in a basic training class; taking actions such as these should help minimize the chances of dog bites, attacks and episodes that could leave you liable for damages.
What to do when first injured by a dog
When possible, one should get medical attention right away after a dog attack and address your injuries properly. It makes sense for the purposes of your claim to have your injuries documented immediately by a health care provider. You should also take pictures of any bruises, scrapes, or cuts on your body immediately, which helps show that an objective injury occurred. In a personal injury case, it is important to have the proper documentation of your injuries and damages in a timely manner. When important matters are not property documented, it can result in a claim becoming minimized or even falling apart in some situations.
It also frequently makes sense to contact the Animal Control department in the locality of the dog bite owner. Animal control can investigate the situation and confirm licenses, records and vaccinations. An animal control investigation does not mean that the dog will necessarily be impounded, but it can be a necessary step when addressing aspects of a dog bite situation.
Washington state has a favorable dog bite statute for dog bite victims
Washington state has a strict liability statute for dog bite injuries, which is a very favorable law for dog bite victims. In a nutshell, strict liability is the imposition of liability without a finding of fault. The claimant need only prove that the tort (injury) occurred and that another person was responsible. Generally, one must prove the elements of negligence to establish liability against another person or business. With strict liability, if one is bitten by a dog, the owner of the dog is generally liable no matter what. It is not a liability defense that an owner trained her dog well and took reasonable steps to try to avoid the dog from hurting somebody.
RCW 16.08.040 reads in part:
“The owner of any dog which shall bite any person while such person is in or on a public place or lawfully in or on a private place including the property of the owner of such dog, shall be liable for such damages as may be suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of such dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness.”
The exceptions to strict liability can be if the dog bite claimant was trespassing, committing a crime or provoking the dog. Landlords are also generally protected; a landlord generally will not be liable for their tenant's dangerous animals.
I find that often defendants and insurance companies involved in these cases abhor this strict liability statute and often want to come up with imaginary and frivolous defenses to try to escape liability. The dog bite owner must prove an affirmative defense by a preponderance of the evidence. My approach as a dog bite victim's attorney is the no-nonsense approach; I try to get this liability issue out of the way at the early stage of a case.
A dog owner can also be liable under different legal causes of action.
A dog owner can also be liable if she knew that the dog had a known propensity to dangerous behavior; this is a common law tort. A dog owner can further be liable in certain cases under standard common law negligence principles. But in Washington state, the strict liability statute is usually the easiest and most practical way to determine liability in favor of a dog bite victim.
Statute of Limitation
One must always be aware of the statute of limitation. A dog bite victim must properly file and serve a lawsuit against a defendant within the three-year statute of limitation period. If you don't, you will usually lose your right to sue. For minors, there are some separate specialized statutes and rules.
Domesticated dogs can be friendly animals that bring a lot of joy into our lives. It is important for pet owners and people who interact with animals to be aware of the risks and take action to minimize the impacts of unforeseen animal attacks. If you are injured by a dog, it is crucial to take the proper steps in pursuing your claim.