The bad news is that, in many states (including California), a dog owner is strictly (automatically) liable for any injuries caused by his or her dog when it bites someone. The good news is that victims often choose not to sue the dog owner. So keep it cool. Your reaction in the first few minutes after your dog has bit someone can decide your fate--that is, whether the victim will sue you or not. If you are present at the scene where your pooch bit someone, you should relocate your dog to a safe distance away from the victim. Make sure you are complying with local leash laws as you do so. But make it clear to the victim that you are not trying to escape, but rather are relocating your pet to a safe distance. If your dog is too excited and cannot calm down, give the victim your phone number and tell him or her to call you to exchange information. Conveying your sense of responsibility can go a long way in placating an angry victim who is in pain. PLEASE NOTE that this information does NOT discuss how to break up a dog fight--which is a very dangerous situation and can result in severe injuries. Expert advice should be consulted by each pet owner on how to properly deal with that scenario.
Immediately After The Attack
As mentioned, your behavior in the immediate aftermath of your dog's attack can decide whether you'll be sued. To minimize your chances of being sued, you should express to the victim how you are genuinely concerned about the victim's safety. Obtain the name, address, phone number, and email address of the victim, and any other witnesses. Obviously, you should not make statements acknowledging liability. But you should also not act defiant, accuse the victim of provoking your dog, or otherwise communicate to the victim that your animal is more important to you than the victim. At the minimum, you should provide the victim with your dog's veterinarian information to allay concerns the victim might have about your dog's vaccination history. As a courtesy, you can call the veterinarian or pet clinic and instruct them to release your dog's information to the victim.
After Some Time Has Passed
Unfortunately, this is where many people torpedo their chances of not being sued. Acting like a jerk or avoiding the victim at this stage is where you can get yourself into trouble. If the victim undergoes medical treatment as a result of the dog bite, express genuine concern and interest in the victim's condition. Review your homeowner's insurance policy (or renter's policy if you are a tenant) to determine whether the dog bite is covered under your policy (many times they are). If you are unsure about coverage, discuss this matter with your insurance agent. You should also consider taking proactive measures to improve your dog's behavior. If this particular dog bite was out of habit for your pet, discuss options with your veterinarian. You might also consider obedience school, and muzzling your dog in public. Remember that dogs are animals, with animal instincts, and no matter how much you love your dog, this animal instinct can manifest itself in the blink of an eye--with ugly consequences.
If The Victim Asks For Money
As mentioned, if the victim asks for money, you should call your insurance company to notify them of an expected claim. Ask the victim for hospital bills, insurance explanation of benefits, veterinarian bills if the victim was another dog, and any other proof of legitimate damages. However, do not make any payments to the victim until you've at least discussed your options with an attorney, who can also assist you in obtaining a release from the victim. Remember that, in many states, you are automatically liable for your dog biting someone else. An attorney might be able to assist you in negotiating down your financial liability. Each factual scenario is unique, and should be discussed with an attorney for more specific guidance. Nevertheless, if you suspect you will be sued, you should consider hiring an attorney to help you minimize your liability.
Discuss With Attorney
If you believe you will be sued or otherwise have a bad feeling that the victim will try to take advantage of you, you should discuss this issue with an attorney experienced with dog bites. The bad news for you is that many states (including California, where I am licensed) impose strict liability for a dog owner whose dog bites someone else. Other states have the "one free bite" rule, which is exactly what it sounds like--if the dog does not have a history of violent behavior, then you may not be automatically liable. Discuss your options with an attorney, and keep in mind that most dog bite victims do not end up suing the dog owner in these situations. If your insurance coverage does not cover dog bites, you might have to face the bitter fact that you could be on the hook for the victim's damages.
Remember that, no matter how much you love your dog, the parents of the child who was just bit by your dog love their child more. Your dog committed a breach of acceptable behavior, and you need to be aware that your dog might pose a threat to others. Don't be surprised if your local animal control agency investigates your dog--cooperate with the investigator as much as you can. If this was a freak occurrence, take measures to correct your dog's behavior, but it no way should you blame the victim or otherwise communicate the feeling that your dog is more important than the victim. Take a lesson from the following example: A client's 5 year old daughter was chased by a dog who escaped its leash. The dog pounced on the little girl, bit her on the rear side of her leg, caused a bleeding gash, and tore the girl's dress. The girl was devastated. The dog's owner immediately accepted responsibility, and the next week the girl noticed that the dog was muzzled. What's more--the owner's wife bought this little girl an American Girl doll. The girl was so excited, that she named the doll after the owner. The point of this story is to demonstrate that this owner accepted responsibility for his dog's unacceptable behavior. And, his gracious attitude and proactive measures went a long way to placating the devastated child and her even angrier parents. Take a lesson from this owner--be gracious and kind to the victim, and take appropriate actions to ensure your dog doesn't bite anyone again.