by Norman Keyt, Arizona dog bite law Attorney
Americans love their dogs. Most dogs are wonderful companions to their masters and give a lot of love and pleasure. There are approximately 53 million dogs in the United States. There is a dark side to man’s best friend, however, that causes a large number of injuries, hospitalizations, reconstructive surgeries and deaths.
Every year in the United States, approximately 4.5 million people are victims of dog bites. More than 300,000 people are admitted to hospitals annually for treatment for dog-bite wounds. Almost one half of all dog-bite victims are children under age 12. The insurance industry estimates that homeowner’s insurance policy claims for dog bites result in insurance payments of more than $1 billion a year. See A Community Approach to Dog Bite Prevention.
In Arizona, when a dog bite causes injuries, the owner and/or person responsible for the dog may be legally obligated to pay the victim’s damages unless the victim provoked the attack. Dog bite victims are frequently compensated for their injuries by the owner’s home owners’ insurance policy.
Many states have a dog bite law that gives a dog “one free bite.” In a one free bite state, the owner of the dog is not liable for damages caused the first time the dog bites a victim unless the owner knew or should have known that the dog had a propensity for violence.
Arizona Dog Bite Statutory Liability
Arizona, however, is not a one free bite state. In fact, Arizona Revised Statutes Sections 11-1020 and 11-1025.A impose strict liability on the owner of a dog that bites a victim. In addition to the owner of a biter, the person or persons who are responsible for the biter at the time it bites are also liable for damages to the victim. For example, if I take my friend’s dog for a walk and during the walk the dog bites and injures a child, both the owner and I may be jointly liable for the child’s damages.
The only defenses to a dog bite claim brought under Sections 11-1020 and 11-1025.A are: (i) that the victim provoked the attack, or (ii) the owner is a governmental agency using a dog in military or police work and the bite occurred while the dog was defending itself from a harassing or provoking act, or assisting an employee of the agency in connection with certain specified tasks. See A.R.S. § 11-1025.B.
Arizona Dog Bite Nonstatutory Liability
In addition to claims brought for damages under Arizona Revised Statutes Sections 11-1020 and 11-1025.A, dog bite victims may have a claim arising under local city or county ordinances and under common law negligence. Victims should determine if the city or county where the bite occurred have any ordinances or regulations that might impose liability on the dog owner or person responsible for the dog. For example, if the locality has a leash law and the law was violated, that may be the basis for a negligence claim.
Dog bite claims may also be brought under Arizona common law and for negligence. These claims are more difficult to prove, but they may be made concurrently with a claim based on Sections 11-1020 and 11-1025.A. The statute of limitations for claims based on negligence and Arizona common law is two years from the date the claim arose.
Arizona Dog Bite Criminal Liability
In certain situations, Arizona law imposes criminal liability on a dog owner whose dog injures another person. A person commits a class 6 felony in Arizona if:
- the person owns a dog that the owner knows or has reason to know has a propensity to attack, to cause injury or otherwise endanger the safety of human beings without provocation or which has been found to be a vicious animal by a court of competent authority, and
- the dog bites, inflicts physical injury on or attacks a human being while at large.
See for example, the People of the State of California v. Marjorie Knoller & Robert Noel. In this California criminal case, the owners of two Presa Canario dogs, Marjorie Knoller and her husband Robert Noel were convicted of second degree murder (only Marjorie) and involuntary manslaughter and owning a “mischievous” animal (only Robert). For a complete history of this case and more information than you probably want to know, see the Diane Whipple Case.
Damages for Dog Bites
If a dog bite victim proves liability, the victim is entitled to be compensated for the following damages:
- the costs of all medical care, including, ambulance charges, medication costs, doctors’ fees, emergency room and hospital costs
- the estimated costs for future medical care to treat wounds and reduce or eliminate wounds, scars and disfigurement
- counseling costs
- loss of earnings
- cost to replace damaged or destroyed personal property
- compensation for injuries to or loss of life of pets attacked by the dog
The above list illustrates the types of damages for which a victim may be compensated, but it is not a complete list. The facts and circumstances of each dog attack and its victim may result in additional types of damages for which the victim may be compensated.
The Source for Paying Damages
Usually, but not always, the person liable for a dog bite has insurance that will pay the victim’s damages. Dog bite insurance may be provided by homeowner’s insurance, renter’s insurance, landlord’s insurance, dog owner’s insurance or business insurance if the dog is owned by or under the control of a business such as a breeder or pet shop. Even if the person liable for a dog bite is a friend or member of the family of a victim, if there is sufficient insurance coverage, the friend or family member may not have to pay the damages out of his or her pocket because the damages will be paid by the insurance company.
Collect the Information Needed to Prove Your Case
People who are bitten by dogs and the parents of children bitten by dogs should immediately take the following actions to preserve evidence that may be needed to maximize damage recovery:
- Get medical attention.
- Call the police and the local animal control office (the dog catcher) and report the attack. Police and animal control reports can be very useful in pursuing legal claims for damages. In Maricopa County, report bites to Animal Control Services at 602-506-7387. If possible, confine the animal (without endangering yourself) first, and then call.
- Take still color photos and video photos of all bruises and wounds, before and after treatment. Also take photos of clothing worth during the attack.
- Take still color photos and video of the attack scene and the dog if you have access to it. Make a written note that the dog in the picture(s) is the dog that attacked. If you did not witness the attack, ask all witnesses to state in writing that the dog in your pictures is the dog that attacked the victim.
- Write a narrative that describes the look and features of the dog, its breed, color, size and any distinctive markings..
- Make a written diary that recounts the attack from beginning to end and that contains a history of all important events related to the attack such as the dates of all medical treatments, the names of the treating personnel, the procedures performed and medications taken, and all communications with the dog owner and/or responsible person(s).
- Take appropriate steps to identify the dog.
- Ask to examine the license tag of the dog and make a written record (a picture would be better) of any information on all dog tags. Arizona law requires licenses on all dogs at least four months old kept in Arizona at least thirty consecutive days in a calendar year.
- Identify the dog’s owner and his or her home address and telephone number.
- Identify any responsible person(s) and his or her home address and telephone number.
- Ask the owner and any responsible person(s) if they have any homeowner’s or rental insurance or any type of insurance that might cover the attack. If they have insurance, ask for the name of the insurer(s).
- Identify all witnesses to the attack and obtain their name(s), addresses and phone numbers. You may have to knock on doors in the vicinity of the attack to determine if any neighbors saw or heard the attack. Return to the scene of the attack at the same time the next few days or perhaps a week later and question all passersby to determine if perhaps they saw or heard the accident.
- Ask to see a driver’s license of the owner, responsible person(s) and witnesses to confirm their name and address information.
Dog bite victims or the parents of victims who are children should act immediately to protect their rights. Victims (or their parents) should not sign any document offered by an insurance company, the dog’s owner or a person who is responsible for a dog attack without first consulting an experienced dog bite attorney. It is common for an insurance company to attempt to settle a dog bite claim for substantially less than its actual value. Beware of signing anything that might eliminate or reduce your right (or your child’s right) to be compensated for damages arising from a dog attack.
Statute of Limitations
There are statute of limitations that prevent the bringing of dog bite claims that are not filed in court within certain periods of time after an attack. The period of limitations depends on the type of claim. For example, claims based on negligence have a two year statute of limitations while claims brought under Arizona Revised Statutes Sections 11-1020 and 11-1025.A have a one year period. See A.R.S. § 12-541. I recommend that you bring all possible claims arising from a dog bite within one year of the incident just to be safe and prevent the running of any applicable statute of limitations.
Victims Need Legal Representation
All victims of dog bites (and the parents of victims who are children) should consult with an experienced Arizona dog bite attorney as soon as possible after an attack. The legal rights of dog bite victims depend on the law of the state, county and city where the attack occurred. Claims may be brought under one or more legal theories. The calculation of possible damages of each dog bite case is necessary to determine its settlement value. Because the Arizona statutes of limitations involve complex legal issues and are dependent on the facts and circumstances of each case, it is best to contact an attorney immediately after the attack to prevent the loss of the right to sue for damages.
By contacting an attorney immediately after an attack, the attorney can assist in preserving and compiling evidence and in maximizing the victim’s damage recovery. Most attorneys who accept dog bite cases will take the case on a contingency, which means that no attorneys’ fees are payable unless there is a recovery of money. Contingency fees commonly are one third of money recovered before trial, but if the case goes to trial, the contingency fee becomes forty percent.
For Dog Bite Victims
If you or a family member were bitten by a dog in Arizona and want to discuss your rights and whether you can collect money damages from the dog’s owner or the owner’s insurance company, call Arizona dog bite attorney Norman Keyt at 602-906-4953, ext. 2 (no charge to answer questions).
Communicating with Norm Keyt via email or otherwise does not cause you to become a client or cause your communications to be confidential or subject to the attorney client privilege.
This article was first published March 30, 2002.