Dog Bites and Other Animal Attacks

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By Marc Diller, Esq.
DILLER LAW, P.C.

return to articles on dog and animal bite injuries

Medical Needs—if you are injured by a dog or animal attack, the first and most important thing to do is seek proper medical care, particularly if you have been bitten. Make sure that your health is taken care of.

If you have been injured by an animal it is also important to speak with an attorney to determine your rights. The law regarding dog attacks, farm animals, and “exotic” pets is slightly different for each and it will usually require someone with experience to help you determine the best course of action.

In Massachusetts, dog attacks (not just bites) are governed by statute, Massachusetts General Law Chapter 140 Section 155. This law imposes “strict liability” on dog owners and / or keepers for the harmful actions of their dog. This statute is not, however, the only means by which an injured person may seek recovery. A party may also make a claim in negligence, premises liability, and other common law causes of action. A competent attorney will help you explore all your options.

Some Factors to Consider if You are Injured by a Dog Bite or Animal Attack:

In Most Cases the Insurance Company is Not Your Friend: Whether it’s your own insurance or the dog owners insurance company, remember they generally only have one goal in mind: to pay as little money as possible. This is true no matter how “customer friendly” the insurance company is. For better or worse, they are a money-making operation with an obligation to their owners to make a profit. You should never try to negotiate with an insurance company without competent legal advice. Most Importantly, NEVER SIGN ANYTHING WITHOUT ADVICE.

What if I Wasn’t Bitten?: The statute imposing “strict liability” on the owner/keeper of the dog (M.G.L. c. 140 § 155) applies to “any damage to either the body or property of any person.” That means, even if the dog knocked you over, if you were injured you still have grounds to be compensated. You do not have to be bitten in order to make a claim.

The Dog’s Owner Was Not Involved: The law imposes liability on “the owner or keeper, or if the owner or keeper is a minor, the parent or guardian of such minor” of the dog that caused an injury. That means if someone was “dog-sitting” or otherwise taking care of someone else’s dog, they can still be held liable for causing your injury. Sometimes more than one person is responsible. Sometimes there are complicated issues of ownership and control of the dog that you will need to review with an attorney.

Who is the Dog’s Keeper?: Under Massachusetts law, a dogs keeper is someone ‘harboring with an assumption of custody, management and control of the dog’ Brown v. Bolduc, 556 N.E.2d 1051, 29 Mass. App. Ct. 909 (1990). See also Maillet v. Mininno, 266 Mass. 86, 165 N.E. 15 (1929) (the mere presence of the dog on the premises where the defendants lived, or acquiescence in its presence, is not enough to prove keeping).

My Child Was Teasing the Dog: Under the dog bite statute, a “minor . . . under seven years of age” is presumed not to have been “teasing, tormenting or abusing” the dog. That presumption can be overcome, but the defendant must offer proof to do so.

I Was Bitten By a Dog I Was Taking Care Of: If you were taking care of a dog for someone else, you might be considered that dog’s keeper under the law. If so, this can complicate the issue of recovery. Please consult an experienced attorney to explore your options. See Salisbury v. Ferioli, 49 Mass. App. Ct. 485, 487 (2000).

I Was Bitten By a Police Dog: Talk to an experienced attorney. You may have a harder time making a straight dog bite claim against the police, but there are other possible grounds for legal action, such as a civil rights claim, that are dependant on the particular facts of the case.

I Don’t Want to Sue My Neighbor: This is an understandable feeling, but keep in mind that it will almost always be an insurance company that ends up footing the bill. Only rarely will an individual’s assets come in to play in this type of suit. Also keep in mind that the costs of medical care can get very expensive, particularly if you need vaccinations and other treatments. Sometimes, your own insurance company will file suit even if you don’t want to. Finally, remember that very few cases actually end up going to trial. Most will settle after some negotiations, but sometimes filing a suit is necessary.

What is the Difference Between a Negligence Claim and a Strict Liability Claim?:
“Negligence” and “Strict Liability” are two separate, somewhat technical terms defining how one can sue a defendant for liability due to an injury. Most dog bit cases are “strict liability” cases. This means there is a statute (M.G.L. c. 140 § 155) that imposes liability on dog owners/handlers for injuries caused by the dog. The primary effect of this “strict liability” statute is that there is no “notice” or “duty” requirement to impose liability. You simply need to show ownership or control of the dog by the defendant and that someone was actually injured in order to recover.
In some dog bite cases, liability is pursued under a “Negligence” theory, which usually requires a finding that the dog’s owner or keeper knew or should have known about the vicious propensity of the dog or other animal. This is often demonstrated by showing past bites or attacks.

No Fault Insurance: Some property insurance policies have a provision for “no fault” payment of medical bills related to any injury occurring on the premises. Ask your lawyer to investigate this possibility.

What Sort of Information Do I Need?: your attorney can help you investigate your claim, but if possible it is always useful to have the name of any witnesses, photographs of your injury, photos of the animal that attacked you, and/or photos of the location of the attack. Also useful is the name and/or address of the owner/keeper of the animal, the name or I.D. tag numbers of the animal, any copies of the animal’s proof of vaccination, and copies of any police or animal control reports. Try to remember what you were doing right before the attack occurred. If you were playing with the animal before it bit or attacked you, be honest with your attorney as they can help determine whether your actions have any relevance to your claim.

What if the Animal That Attacked Me Wasn’t a Dog?: If you were not attacked by a dog, the statute mentioned above (M.G.L. c. 140 § 155) does not apply. However, there are other “common law” and statutory remedies to obtain relief when an animal attacks. For example, “[r]easonable care to keep the premises safe for the plaintiff from harm caused by animals is within the scope of the duty owed to her as a business invitee by the defendants.” Neagle v. Morgan, 360 Mass. 864 (1971). Make sure you speak with an attorney to pursue all your options.

Conclusion

If you have been injured by a dog or other animal, once you have consulted a physician or medical professional to address your immediate medical issues, it is important to speak with a competent attorney in order to determine the best course of action in seeking compensation for your injuries. Remember that most reputable attorneys will give you a free consultation for this type of case. An attorney can help you determine who may be liable for the attack (The dog owner? The property owner? The dog walker? Etc.); They can help you determine what is and isn’t appropriate to request with respect to damages; They can help you determine if there is applicable insurance coverage; finally, an attorney can almost always help you in negotiating a better settlement from the insurance company.

For more information or a free confidential case review, contact a personal injury lawyer at Diller Law by calling (617) 523-7771, or filling out the form on the right of this page.