Who’s liable when man’s best friend attacks?
In Florida, a peaceful morning walk can quickly become a harrowing ordeal when an aggressive dog is involved.
Understanding Florida’s dog bite laws is critical for both dog owners and unsuspecting dog bite victims, as these laws have significant implications on liability and compensation.
In a chilling real-life example, a 61-year-old postal carrier, Pamela Rock, was fatally mauled by five dogs after her mail truck broke down on a rural road in northern Florida.
In this article, we’ll look at the complexities of Florida’s dog bite laws, including who’s liable and what damages can be recovered.
Florida’s dog bite laws
Most states apply one of two laws when it comes to dog bites:
|Strict liability||One-bite rule|
|In states that apply strict liability, an owner is liable for a dog bite regardless of whether or not the dog has displayed aggressive or violent tendencies in the past.||In states that apply a one-bite rule, an owner is only responsible for a dog bite if the owner knew or should have known about their dog’s violent tendencies.|
Pursuant to Florida Statute 767.04, Florida applies strict liability to dog bites. Therefore, in most cases, a dog owner will be held liable for damages related to a dog bite, even if the dog has never shown violent tendencies.
Let’s look at an example:
Donald visits his friend Alex at his home in Sarasota, Florida. Alex owns a bulldog named Duke.
As soon as Donald enters Alex’s home, Duke attacks Donald. Donald suffers serious bite wounds on his hands and arms.
Alex is shocked because Duke has never bitten anyone or shown any signs of aggression.
Is Alex liable for Donald’s injuries?
Yes. Because Florida follows the strict liability rule.
Florida’s leash laws
Under state law, a dog that is considered “dangerous” must be restrained with a muzzle or leash every time the dog is outside of a proper enclosure. A dog is considered “dangerous” if it has aggressively bitten or attacked a person, chased a person while unprovoked, or has more than once severely injured or killed a domestic animal.
Dogs that aren’t considered dangerous don’t need to be leashed under state law. However, a number of counties have passed ordinances requiring dogs to be leashed in certain circumstances.
Common defenses to a Florida dog bite claim
There are three primary defenses to a Florida dog-bite claim:
- Trespassing: Florida’s strict liability dog bite law only applies if the dog bite victim was in a public place or lawfully in a private place at the time of the attack. If the victim was trespassing, they’re unable to recover damages under Florida’s dog bite statute.
- Negligence: If the victim’s negligence caused or partially caused the dog bite, the owner’s liability would be reduced by the percentage that the victim’s negligence contributed to the biting incident. For example, if the victim provoked the dog, the owner’s liability will be reduced.
- “Bad dog” sign: A homeowner is not liable, except to a person under the age of six, if, at the time the dog bite occurred, the owner had displayed a sign that prominently featured the words “bad dog.”
Damages available in Florida dog bite cases
The severity of injuries sustained from a dog bite is typically influenced by factors such as the dog's breed, the individual's traits, and the bite's location.
A dog's formidable teeth and jaw strength have the potential to crush or tear through muscles and skin and, in some cases, inflict life-threatening damage to internal organs. Furthermore, the presence of bacteria in a dog's mouth means that any bite breaking the skin could introduce harmful microbes beneath the skin's surface. If not treated promptly, these bacteria can spread and lead to serious complications.
Common injuries resulting from dog bites include:
- Puncture wounds
- Nerve damage
- Emotional distress
Fortunately, Florida allows dog bite victims to recover three types of damages:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by the dog bite (medical expenses, lost wages, property damage).
- Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary losses caused by the dog bite (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 was guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence (i.e., conduct so reckless that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the safety of the victim).
Statute of limitations in Florida dog bite cases
A statute of limitations is a law that sets the maximum amount of time an individual has to file a lawsuit from the date of the incident giving rise to the lawsuit.
Dog bite claims are personal injury claims, and Florida’s statute of limitations for personal injury claims is four years. This means that you have four years to file a lawsuit from the date you were bitten. If you fail to file a lawsuit within that time, your claim will be forever barred.
What to do if you’re bitten by a dog
If you’re attacked by a dog in Florida, 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 decide to file an insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit.
Here is some evidence that you should collect if you can:
- Medical records
- Witness contact information
- Police reports
- Photographs of your injuries
- Photographs of the dog
- Photographs of the scene
Most dogs are as friendly as they look and don’t attack people. Florida’s dog bite laws exist for those rare instances when a dog does attack. Understanding the laws can help ensure you recover the damages you deserve if you’re bitten and can also ensure you avoid liability if you’re a dog owner.