Those three words are what most dog owners would say about their beloved pet, whenever someone has been the victim of a dog bite. I know – both as a plaintiffs’ attorney representing victims of dog bites – as well as a dog lover myself. Dogs are wonderful creatures: They offer friendship, loyalty, unconditional love and much more. And nine times out of ten, when someone’s dog attacks and injures another person, the dog thinks his/her owner is being threatened somehow and is acting to defend the owner.
But that doesn’t make the experience any less physically painful, or any less injurious for the person who’s attacked. Not only is a dog bite extremely painful, for some people it can cause lasting psychological trauma. The number of dog owners in this country increases each year, especially now that many hotels and hospitality organizations welcome them. Letter carriers (formerly “mailmen” and mailwomen”) have always been at especially high risk for dog bites: Almost 6,000 USPS employees were attacked by dogs just in 2019. The problem is so widespread that the Postal Service promotes National Dog Bite Awareness Week each June to raise awareness of the problem, complete with an over-sized laminated card bearing the image of a large, snarling dog, baring its teeth.
But obviously, postal carriers aren’t the only victims of dog bites. Not in the slightest. And as a Massachusetts dog bite lawyer who has handled numerous dog bite cases over the years, I can assure you that the dog involved isn’t typically “Cujo” (from the film of the same name) or a German Shepherd that you’d find on prison grounds. Yes. Little “Fifi” can cause a lot of damage, too. If you doubt that, take a look at her teeth.
A dog bite can often be anything but minor — if left untreated, dog bite injuries can cause life-threatening infections. Beyond being painful, they can often result in physical scarring and lasting damage. Generally speaking, dogs attack the lower legs, the hands and forearms, and – especially with young kids due to their short height – the face. The lacerations and scarring that result can be very severe, and worth a great deal of money in terms of damages. If your dog bites and injures someone, that person may be entitled to pursue legal action against you. The Massachusetts Dog Bite Statute, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 140, Section 155 is especially strong. It is known as a “strict liability statute” meaning that civil liability applies even if the dog’s owner took reasonable care to prevent the harm suffered. As an example, even if the owner took reasonable steps to secure the dog on a strong leash or chain, if the dog gets loose and bites someone, the dog’s owner can be held “strictly liable” for any resulting injuries. The only requirements to attach liability are:
- That the dog caused personal injury or property damage, and
- That the injured person (or the owner of the damaged property) must not be a trespasser, committing another tort, or have intentionally provoked the dog at the time of the incident.
Further, the law applies to any injuries caused by a dog in Massachusetts, not just to bites. Example: A pedestrian is walking in a public park when a dog jumps on her, knocks her to the ground and she breaks her ankle as a result. Liability attaches.
These cases can often present high damages, so dog owners should always purchase either homeowner’s insurance or renter’s insurance that provides coverage for such events.
Beyond this, everyone should take steps to be a responsible dog owner. Some steps you can take to minimize the odds of an injury:
- Make sure your dog is restrained, both outside and at times inside the house. When walking your dog, don’t let others who might be attracted to the dog, approach to pet him or her. The dog may interpret that as aggressive, and bite. When inside your house, if a delivery person is at your door, put your dog in another room with the door securely shut, before you answer the door. Most dogs think a stranger is an intruder, and attack.
- Never leave your dog off-leash. Beyond the risk that someone might be attacked, there is the risk that the dog could be injured by a motor vehicle.
- Never leave your dog in your yard alone, unless there is a locked gate or fence through which children or others can enter. That’s always a big risk.
Remember, in Massachusetts, the law is very strict when it comes to liability for injuries caused by dogs. Again, beyond taking the above steps, anyone owning a dog in Massachusetts should consult with their insurance agent to make sure that they carry sufficient coverages to financially protect them from any lawsuit or legal claims resulting from their dog’s behavior. Otherwise, the biggest bite that might result, will be the bite to your bank account if you’re sued because of a dog bite injury.
Whether you’ve been bitten by a dog or you are the dog’s owner, if you have any questions about this area of law, feel free to call us or send us a Contact Form. We’d be glad to speak with you by phone, without charge.