Find out when a dog owner is liable for a dog bite
Alabamans love their dogs.
Approximately 48 percent of people in Alabama own at least 1 dog.
Unfortunately, dogs are not always man's best friend.
According to research published by Injury Epidemiology, about 4.5 million people in the United States are bitten by dogs each year. Of these people, approximately 19 percent need medical attention.
Let’s take a closer look at dog bite injuries and laws in Alabama.
Alabama’s new dog bite laws
All 50 states have laws in place that determine when a dog owner is liable for a dog bite. In most cases, states have adopted either a strict liability law or a one-bite law.
Let’s take a look at each law:
- Strict liability laws. In states that have adopted strict liability laws, a dog owner is liable for the injuries caused by their dog regardless of whether their dog previously bit someone or previously exhibited any violent behavior.
- One-bite laws. In states that have adopted one-bite laws, a dog owner is only liable for the dog bite if the injured person can prove the owner should have known about their dog’s violent propensities (for example, the dog previously bit someone).
If the person bit is on the dog owner’s property when the bite occurs, the owner is strictly liable for any injuries that result.
Let’s look at an example.
Kelly visits her friend Angela at her home in Mobile, Alabama. Angela owns a Jack Russell Terrier named Cooper.
As soon as Kelly enters Angela’s home, Cooper attacks her. Kelly suffers serious bite wounds on her hands and arms.
Angela is shocked because Cooper has never bitten anyone before or shown any signs of aggression.
Is Angela liable for Kelly’s injuries?
Yes. Because Kelly was bitten on Angela’s property, Angela is strictly liable for any injuries.
If the person bitten is NOT on the dog owner’s property when the bite occurs, the one-bite law applies. In other words, the dog’s owner is only liable if the injured person can prove that the dog’s owner should have known about the dog’s violent propensities.
Let’s look at an example.
Jason is walking his Labrador retriever, Bella, without a leash along King Valley Drive in Pelham, Alabama. As Bella passes a 10-year-old boy named Curtis, Bella suddenly jumps up and bites Curtis.
Jason is shocked because Bella has never bitten anyone or shown any signs of aggression.
Is Jason liable for Curtis’s injuries?
No. Jason is not liable because Bella has never shown any violent propensities prior to biting Curtis.
Common defenses to dog bite claims
Dog bite cases are pretty straightforward when strict liability applies. The only defenses are:
- The victim wasn’t actually bitten.
- The victim wasn’t on the dog owner’s property.
- The victim provoked the dog.
- The victim was trespassing at the time of the bite.
When the one-bite law applies, cases are often more complicated. This is because the focus of litigation is generally on whether the dog exhibited violent behavior before the bite and whether the owner knew or should have known about these behaviors.
Any of the following might be used to prove that a dog exhibited violent behavior before the attack:
- Police reports of other bites
- Witness testimony
- Videos or photographs displaying aggressive behavior
- Copies of citations or warnings issued by the local animal control center
Dog bite injuries and available damages in Alabama
The severity of dog bite injuries usually depends on the breed of the dog, the characteristics of the person bitten and the location of the bite.
A dog’s teeth and jaw are very powerful and can crush or tear muscles and skin and even cause fatal damage to intestinal organs. What’s more, because a dog’s mouth is full of bacteria, any bite that punctures the skin can introduce bacteria or other infectious organisms below the skin’s surface. If left untreated, the bacteria can spread and cause serious issues.
Common dog bite injuries include:
- Puncture wounds
- Nerve damage
- Emotional distress
Fortunately, Alabama allows dog bite victims to recover 3 types of damages:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by an accident (medical expenses, lost wages, property damage).
- Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary losses caused by an accident (pain and suffering, loss of consortium).
- Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and are only awarded in cases in which the plaintiff can prove the defendant consciously or deliberately engaged in wantonness or malice (for example, if the dog owner instructed the dog to attack the plaintiff). Punitive damages are capped at $1.5 million.
Alabama dog bite statute of limitations
Alabama limits the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit following a dog bite.
This time limit—called the statute of limitations—is 2 years. In other words, a plaintiff has 2 years from the date of the dog bite to file a lawsuit.
If the plaintiff fails to file a lawsuit within the statute of limitations, they will forever be barred from filing a lawsuit based on that dog bite.
There are some exceptions to the 2-year statute of limitations. For example, if a minor is bitten, the 2-year clock won’t start ticking until the minor turns 18.
It’s always a good idea to meet with an attorney as soon as possible following a dog bite to determine when the statute of limitations expires.
How to file a dog bite lawsuit in Alabama
If you suffered a dog bite and wish to file a lawsuit, you’ll most likely file your lawsuit in 1 of 2 courts:
- Alabama circuit courts are the state trial courts in Alabama. The circuit courts can hear cases in which the damages requested are more than $3,000. What’s more, circuit courts have exclusive jurisdiction over civil cases in which the damages requested are more than $10,000.
- Alabama small claims courts are a division of Alabama’s district courts. The maximum amount an individual can be sued for in small claims court is $6,000. Small claims courts are less formal than circuit courts, and generally, parties don’t hire attorneys.
It may not be necessary to file a personal injury lawsuit after suffering a dog bite. Injuries caused by dogs are often covered under the dog owner’s homeowners insurance policy.
After a dog attack, assuming it’s safe to do so, get the name of the dog owner and their homeowners insurance company name and policy number. You can then file an insurance claim with the insurance company.
If the insurance company denies your claim or gives you a low-ball offer, consider reaching out to an experienced personal injury attorney.
Court documents state the dogs “have killed and injured livestock, have attempted to attack postal workers and Census workers, and have been a nuisance and a danger to the public.”
The lawsuit has yet to be resolved.
What to do if you’re bit by a dog
If you’re bit by a dog, your priority should be getting proper medical attention. Remember, dog bites can lead to infections, so it’s a good idea to see a doctor even if you don’t think the dog bite you suffered was serious.
Once you’ve taken care of your physical health, it’s a good idea to start collecting evidence in case you later decide to file an insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit.
Here are some pieces of evidence that you should gather if you can:
- Medical records
- Witness contact information
- Police reports
- Photographs of your injuries
- Photographs of the accident scene
Why do dogs bite?
Puppies frequently nip as a way of exploring or playing. When it comes to adult dogs, biting usually has some other underlying reason.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), dogs may bite:
- To protect something valuable to them (such as a toy or food)
- Because they’re scared or startled
- To defend themselves or their territory
- In response to a stressful situation
- Because they feel sick or want to be left alone
Other Alabama laws governing dogs
Alabama has some other laws that govern dogs and the interaction of dogs and humans. Most of these laws can be found in Title 3 of the Alabama Code.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights:
- Leash laws. Dogs are not permitted to run at large in Alabama. Dogs must be appropriately confined by a leash or other means. Agricultural and hunting dogs are exempt from these leash laws while the dog is engaged in agricultural practices or hunting.
- Livestock. If a dog kills or injures livestock, the owner of the dog is responsible for the damages.
- Rabbies. If a dog bites someone and the owner knows the dog has rabies, the owner must disclose this fact to the person who was bitten.
What is Emily’s Law?
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed Emily’s Law in 2018. The law is named after Emily Colvin, a 24-year-old Jackson County resident who died after being attacked by a pack of dogs.
Under the law, a dog that is considered by a court to be “dangerous” must be humanely euthanized or returned to its owners with strict supervision and quarantine requirements if the dog:
- Causes serious injury or death, or
- Has a propensity to cause future serious injury or death