What to do if you’ve been bitten by a dog, or if your dog has bitten another person
Your pup might be your best friend, fierce protector, or some combination of both. And although yours might be the most snuggly, friendly pooch around, any dog is capable of biting if provoked.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, homeowners insurers paid out $797 million in liability claims for dog bites and dog-related injuries in 20191. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that while 38% of U.S. households have 1 or more dogs2 (there are about 77.5 million domestic dogs in the nation), there are about 4.5 million dog bites each year — and of those, about 1 in 5 becomes infected.
Among dog-bite hospital visits, the most common injuries are3:
- Skin and subcutaneous tissue infections
- Open wounds of extremities
- Open wounds of head, neck and trunk
- Fractures of upper limbs
Strict liability for a dog bite in North Carolina
Well, you can’t sue a dog.
Most states handle dog bites as either strict liability or negligence. In a negligence state, the injured person must prove that the dog owner didn’t exercise “reasonable care” to prevent the dog from biting.
However, in a strict liability state like North Carolina, an injured plaintiff doesn’t have to prove negligence. The owner is responsible whether or not they used reasonable care to prevent the dog from harming someone.
In some states, the owner is always liable, whether or not they knew that the dog was likely to bite. In others, the owner is liable if they were aware that the dog might bite. In North Carolina, the dog owner is responsible for the dog’s action even if there was no history of aggressive behavior.
Exceptions to dog bite liability
Like most areas of law, though, there are some exceptions. If any of the following statements is true, the animal’s owner might NOT be held liable under North Carolina premises liability law:
- The dog was an on-duty police or military dog.
- The victim was trespassing on private property (in other words, not legally on the premises).
- The dog was securely confined when the person was bitten.
- The dog bit while protecting its owner from being attacked.
One Bite Rule
North Carolina is 1 of 18 states that follows the “one bite rule” (also known as “one free bite”). Although North Carolina treats owners as being liable for a dog bite under strict liability, the one bite rule says that the owner isn’t liable if a dog has never been vicious or dangerous before.
So, this seems to not make sense, right? How can you be liable under strict liability, but also not liable under the one bite rule?
North Carolina has a few exceptions to the one bite rule that would make a dog bite fall into a strict liability category:
- The dog was running loose at night without its owner. Any damage or harm done by a dog out alone at night is the owner’s responsibility, whether or not it’s the dog’s first attack.
- The dog could be a potentially dangerous dog, even if it hadn’t bitten anyone in the past. This might be the case for a dog that’s trained for fighting, or if the dog followed a victim for more than 50 feet while barking and growling.
- The owner was aware that the dog could be dangerous. Again, if the owner knows that the dog has acted aggressively toward a person, they can be liable for a bite even if the dog hadn’t actually bitten someone.
Penalties for a dog bite or animal attack
There can be criminal penalties for a dog owner who is aware that their dog is dangerous but who fails to protect others from being bitten. If a dog owner is aware that a dog has the propensity to bite, they must not leave the animal unattended or unconfined, and they must leash or muzzle the dog when off their own property.
Under North Carolina law, a dog that bites a person must be confined for observation for 10 days. Local authorities will determine whether the dog must be confined on the owner’s own property or if it must stay with the animal control department.
What makes a dog “dangerous”?
Just like human babies, many puppies will “nip” because of excitement, teething, or even playfulness. This doesn’t mean that the dog is dangerous. A dangerous dog is defined as one that:
- Has killed or severely injured a person without having been provoked,
- Is owned or trained for the purpose of dog fighting, or
- Is determined to be a potentially dangerous dog by the local animal control department. (Usually this designation is for a dog that has bitten a person, attacked or killed another animal, or has been aggressive or threatening toward people.)
If a dog is considered dangerous, the owner must take these precautions:
- The dog must be confined, either indoors or outdoors.
- If the dog is confined outdoors, it must be in an enclosed, secure structure.
- The dog must be restrained, muzzled, or leashed any time it leaves the owner’s property.
Damages in a North Carolina dog bite lawsuit
If you were bitten by a dog or attacked by another pet in North Carolina, you have 3 years to file a claim.
You may recover damages to cover your expenses for:
- Medical treatment, like doctor or hospital visits, surgery, assistive devices, prescription medication, and any other costs associated with your recovery.
- Lost income if you had to take time off from work during your recovery period.
- Pain and suffering, which can include emotional trauma or mental distress.
- Loss of consortium
If you’ve lost a family member in a dog attack, you can file a wrongful death claim against the dog owner.
Defenses to dog bite claims
Here are 3 common defenses to liability in dog bite and animal attack injury cases:
- The injured person was trespassing, on the property illegally, or was attempting to commit a crime when they were bitten.
- The injured person provoked the animal by tormenting or abusing it.
- The animal was engaged in “official duties” as a law enforcement, hunting, or herding dog.
The defense of trespassing is qualified by the point that the person must have been willfully trespassing, not accidentally trespassing.
What to do if your dog bites someone
If your dog has bitten a person, here’s how to handle the situation:
- Immediately regain control of your dog. If you’re at home, place the dog in a secure crate or in a room away from the victim and other people. If you’re out, be sure that your dog is leashed and you’re able to keep it away from others.
- Call 911 if the injuries are serious. If it doesn’t seem like it’s necessary to visit a hospital or urgent care, be sure the person has access to first aid supplies like bandages and antiseptic wound cleaner to prevent infection.
- Exchange information. Provide your contact information to the victim, and take their contact information, too. It’s also important to have names and contact information for any witnesses who observed the incident.
- Call animal control. This won’t be easy for a dog owner, but it’s important. They might have certain reporting or other requirements, and you should follow them.
Can I prevent my dog from biting someone?
You know your pet best. But here are some general tips for prevent a dog bite or animal attack from happening in the first place:
- Learn your dog’s body language and how it reacts to certain stimuli and situations.
- Invest in obedience training for your dog so it knows how to follow your commands and respects your authority.
- Keep your dog on a leash in public areas. Some municipalities have leash laws, so know what the requirements are where you live or visit.
What to do if your or a loved one was bitten or attacked
- Identify the dog’s owner. Get the person’s name and address so that you can follow up with them later.
- Request proof of rabies vaccination. Even if the injury is minor, if the bite has broken your skin, you’ll want this information. If you’re unable to get the vaccine record, you might need to undergo rabies shots, which are painful and costly.
- Obtain medical treatment. If your injury is severe and you can’t control the bleeding or have another serious medical issue, you should call 911 and immediately go to a hospital or urgent care center. Even if you think the bite isn’t serious, it would still be a good idea to have it examined by a doctor who might give you medication to prevent infection. It’s also important to have documentation of the bite and medical records as evidence if you need them.
- Take photos of your injuries. Whether or not you visit a doctor, photos are important, and the more immediate after the bite, the better. If your clothes are torn or bloodied, or if there’s other evidence that can be captured in photos (a broken fence, broken leash, etc.), that could be important, too.
- Report the bite to animal control. This is an important step because it generates a legal document that supports your case, and also because it gives the dog a “record” that will determine whether it’s a dangerous dog and that can protect other people from being bitten in the future. If animal control already has a record on the animal, that’s important to your claim, also.
- Contact a dog bite lawyer. This can be a hard step, especially if you’re an animal-lover and don’t want to see a dog suffer consequences. But it might be necessary if you require compensation for your injuries. Some dog bites result in long-term injuries, including nerve damage and scarring. You’re entitled to recover damages, and a lawyer can help you understand your rights and the dog owner’s responsibilities, and can assist you in filing a claim.
You can find an attorney to help with your North Carolina dog bite injury case by using the free Enjuris law firm directory.
1 Spotlight on: Dog bite liability, Insurance Information Institute
2 Healthy Pets, Healthy People, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
3 Emergency Department Visits and Inpatient Stays Involving Dog Bites, 2008; Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality