Personal injury attorney, Jared Richards, discusses dog bite and dog attack laws, how the criminal statute affects civil liability, and more:
Just kind of, let’s start really broad and general. Every time a dog bites a person, is the dog owner liable or how does that how does the law kind of even start to work on this? Before we even get to the fatality, if you’re just jogging along and somebody else is jogging with their dog the opposite direction, and that dog bites your ankle?
Jared Richards: Right. First of all, tragic, tragic occurrence, and our heart goes out to the family of the boy. In general, we don’t have any specific statutes that address the negligence aspect of dog bite liability. We have some criminal statutes, but it’s not for general negligence, which means we just go under general negligence law which we call just General Negligence Common Law.
Jordan Flake: There is not some statute that says, “This is dog bite law, NRS1774 in Nevada. There is just we go under what happened in previous cases?
Jared Richards: Right. Kind of.
Jordan Flake: Okay.
Jared Richards: There is a criminal statute, and if you violate the criminal statute then you automatically are going to be liable for damages that are done when you violate the criminal statute. You don’t have to violate the criminal statue …
Jordan Flake: In order to be held …
Jared Richards: In order to be held responsible.
Jordan Flake: Okay.
Jared Richards: Right, but if you violate the criminal statue your [inaudible 00:02:16].
Jordan Flake: What is …?
Jared Richards: What it is is everybody has the duty to act as a reasonably safe and prudent person. It’s my duty, it’s your duty, it’s everybody’s duty at all times.
Jordan Flake: Which is why we can’t drive recklessly.
Jared Richards: That’s why we can’t drive recklessly, we can’t drive drunk, we can’t drive distracted. We have to follow the basic safety rules of society as a reasonably prudent, safe person would do. Now, if we breach that duty and as a result of us breaching that duty somebody gets hurt then we’re on the hook for the damage that we’ve caused.
In the case of a dog the question is going to be up to the jury of what would a reasonably prudent and safe person, as an owner, have done in that situation?
This is where we get into questions about whether the one bite rule would apply or not? The one bite rule is a traditional common law doctrine where the owner isn’t going to be responsible until the animal has actually attacked somebody at least once before because they don’t know that the animal is dangerous.
I don’t know that would actually apply here. What’s really a jury is going to at and say was there sufficient notice to this particular owner that this particular dog was dangerous?
Jordan Flake: Just so everyone knows out there, the background also on this is that that dog was previously cited for attacking another dog.
Jared Richards: Right.
Jordan Flake: The question is, does that constitute sufficient notice so that the owner of the dog would have said, “You know what if a guest is coming to my home or if the front door is open and we’re just dealing with the screen door I better make sure this pit bull is restrained because somebody could come to the door and freak my dog out.”
Jared Richards: If you’re the person who owns the dog or if you’re the insurance company, like the homeowner’s insurance that’s backing up the dog, you’ve got to be careful about that because you’re going to have a lot of juries out there that might think that. If it’s already attacked another animal then it might attack a human. But, there might be juries that think the other way around. It really is going to depend on what the ultimate juries believe. What they think was proper notice to the owner that this was a potentially dangerous animal.
Now, the criminal statute is a little bit different. The criminal statue defines animals under two different varieties, under dangerous and vicious. Dangerous means that when it’s provoked it’s going to get defensive. Vicious means …
Jordan Flake: It goes out looking for trouble.
Jared Richards: Yeah, it goes out looking for trouble. You don’t need to provoke it. Once it’s been either cited as a vicious animal or you observed it be a vicious animal and you’ve seen it go out and bite then you have seven days, you can’t transfer it and you have seven days to get rid of it. If you don’t do that and somebody gets hurt then you’ve committed a misdemeanor. You’ve actually violated criminal law and you are, what we call, negligent to per se. You are just … The law’s going to assume that you’ve breached it.
Jordan Flake: That’s if they’re vicious?
Jared Richards: If the dog is vicious.
Jordan Flake: It seems, kind of, actually light because if you know your dog’s basically a weapon …
Jared Richards: Yeah, and that makes sense. If you’ve gone to the point where you’re actually committing misdemeanors then you’re going to be held viable. You don’t have to actually get to the point of committing the misdemeanor to be held liable. You don’t have to know that you’re dog is vicious. You have to know that the dog is vicious before you get criminally cited. To be civilly liable all you have to know is …
Jordan Flake: The dog is dangerous.
Jared Richards: You have to act as a reasonably sane person would act.
Jordan Flake: It’s interesting, the records show in Clark County that there’s been like 154 complaints made against dogs and only nine have been characterized as dangerous of those 154 that we kept records of and zero have been classified as vicious. I think it’s a pretty rare, apparently, a pretty rare classification.
Jared Richards: That’s interesting. Does that mean that there just aren’t that many vicious animals out there or …
Jordan Flake: Do the standards need to change to where …
Jared Richards: Or do the people who are enforcing the standards just not actually enforce them?
Jordan Flake: Right and that’s going to be the issue going forward here is people are going to look at this case and they’re going to say, “Well, what went wrong? This dog was already cited as having bit another dog and we have a …” The thing that we have here is a deceased child. That’s a total tragedy.
Jared Richards: Right, that kid is dead.
Jordan Flake: It’s just … When I heard about this story I was just shocked. He’s nine. He’s a nine-year-old kid killed by a dog.
Jared Richards: What’s interesting is that for a while there was a movement, again in various states, when you have a vicious breed of animal like a pit bull, an ultra-aggressive breed of animal or at least the public might perceive as ultra-aggressive that the owner is just going to be assumed to be already on notice that this is a dangerous animal and so they’re going to be liable in tort the first time the thing attacks because they’re going to assume they’re already on notice.
Jordan Flake: You buy a pit bull you know you’re buying a pit bull and you know what you’re doing.
Jared Richards: There’s been a counter movement in the past couple of years where you’ve had certain states that pass anti-discrimination laws against breeds of animals. I know that Nevada has also implemented that to a certain extent in the criminal statue. It does make you wonder how that would play in the tort. Can a jury still assume that, I don’t know if you buy a Rottweiler or you buy a pit bull, you buy a mountain lion, that at some point you have notice that the animal you bought does pose a danger to others just because of it’s breed.
Jordan Flake: It’s very, very interesting and I think very fertile for academic discussion is it’s obviously very unethical to look at race in human beings as a measure of whether or not there’s a potential for them to a commit a crime.
Jared Richards: We tend to anthropomorphize, I’m going to screw up the word, these animals and although … Listen, I like animals too. I like dogs. They have feelings too. However …
Jordan Flake: The stats don’t like. Pit bulls kill humans. They do. I just looked at the stats. It’s incredible. Pit bulls are the ones that … It’s overwhelmingly 70% children but they’re being by a lot of pit bulls and …
Jared Richards: Significantly more pit bulls have killed …
Jordan Flake: Than Golden Retrievers.
Jared Richards: Or Poodles.
Jordan Flake: Or Poodles or Chihuahuas. It turns out there …
Jared Richards: Not that many Chihuahua deaths.
Jordan Flake: Okay, so maybe last point here, the kid’s name was Derion Stevenson. If the Stevenson’s were to come into your office and talk to you about this case and they said, “Hey listen, we’re going throw unimaginable pain and suffering. We have his funeral costs and it’s just been horrible for us. What are our prospects for recovering in this case. What insurances are out there?”
Jared Richards: That’s an interesting question because the natural insurance that you would assume would apply would be the homeowner’s insurance. Most people in the State of Nevada or the United States of the world don’t really have enough assets to cover an injury like this. My goodness, the boy is dead. Unless you’re Wal-Mart you’re probably not going to have the kind of money to really truly compensate this family, not that money can. You won’t have the kind of money to truly compensate.
What you’d look at first is the homeowner’s insurance. The problem you’re going to have and something you have to look at is there are certain homeowner’s insurances that specifically exclude coverage of what the insurance company defines as vicious animals.
Jordan Flake: Which may be different that the state definition, by the way.
Jared Richards: Right. If I’m going to rely on statistics I’m probably going to rely on the statistics of insurance companies excluding then the state because …
Jordan Flake: Absolutely.
Jared Richards: Insurance companies are, sorry, cold heart less data driven beasts where this state …
Jordan Flake: The odd makers and actuaries know their stuff.
Jared Richards: The state does as well.
Jordan Flake: The state, yeah, a lot of interest and so forth.
Jared Richards: A lot of political interest going on. The first danger is is this specifically excluded by the insurance policy and if it is, and this is research I haven’t done, is it even allowed to exclude this then there may be additional umbrella insurance. After that you need to make the decision, do you go after the actual personal assets of the family and if you did would they just file bankruptcy? At that point even though you’ve lost a child, which is horrible, trying to take away all the property of somebody else also ruins their life. It may not make your life better. Those are all things that are difficult to weigh and sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s not. Those are all things that that person, they need an attorney. They just need one.
Jordan Flake: Absolutely.
Jared Richards: Whatever attorney they go to they should go to one that has experience in personal injury, preferably experience in animal tort and that is compassionate enough they could actually try to walk them through some of these very, very difficult choices and issues that they’re going to have to deal with.