When can you sue for a canine bite or animal attack?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that approximately 4.5 million dog bites occur in the United States every year, and 800,000 of those bites require medical attention.
In South Carolina, 45% of homes have at least 1 dog, which means the chances that you or someone you know has been bitten by a dog are pretty good.
Fortunately for dog bite victims, the Palmetto State has some of the strictest dog bite laws in the country.
South Carolina’s dog bite law
Most states follow 1 of 2 dog bite laws:
- Strict liability law. In states that follow strict liability, a dog owner is liable for a dog bite regardless of whether or not their dog displayed aggressive or violent tendencies prior to the bite.
- One-bite rule. In states that follow the one-bite rule, a dog owner is only responsible for a dog bite if the owner knew or should have known about their dog’s violent tendencies. In other words, an owner is allowed 1 “free bite.”
South Carolina follows the strict liability law. This means that dog owners are liable for a dog bite even if their dog never bit anyone or showed any violent tendencies prior to the bite.
What’s more, South Carolina’s strict liability law holds dog owners liable for more than just dog bites. Under the law, a dog owner can be held liable for any damages caused when their dog “attacks” another person.
For example, if an owner’s dog jumps on a person and the person falls and breaks their arm as a result, the dog owner may be liable for the damages. In Elmore v. Ramos, the South Carolina Court of Appeals held that the dog need not have “evil intent.”
In other words, even if the dog jumps on a person because the dog is happy and trying to play with the person, the owner is liable for any damages that result.
Can someone other than the dog’s owner be held liable for a dog bite?
Yes. Under South Carolina’s dog bite law, anyone who has the dog in their “care or keeping” can be held liable for a dog bite. This may include a friend who is dog-sitting or someone hired to take the dog for a walk.
Defenses to dog bite claims
Because South Carolina follows the strict liability law, dog bite claims are pretty straightforward so long as the victim can prove that they were bitten by the dog. There are only a handful of defenses a dog owner can raise:
- The plaintiff provoked the dog. South Carolina’s strict liability law doesn’t apply if the plaintiff is bitten after they “provoked or harassed the dog.”
- The plaintiff was trespassing. If the plaintiff trespasses (enters without permission) on the dog owner’s property and is bitten, the dog owner will not be held liable.
- The dog is a police or military dog. If the plaintiff is bitten by a police or military dog while the dog was performing its official duties, the dog owner won’t be held liable.
How long do you have to file a dog bite lawsuit?
The South Carolina statute of limitations limits the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit for certain types of cases.
For personal injury cases (including a lawsuit for damages based on a dog bite), you have 3 years from the date of injury or attack to file a lawsuit. If you fail to file your lawsuit before the deadline, you will be permanently barred from filing a lawsuit related to the injury.
What damages can be recovered?
In South Carolina, plaintiffs can recover the following types of damages in dog bite cases:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by the plaintiff’s injuries (medical expenses, lost wages, property damage).
- Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary losses caused by the plaintiff’s injuries (pain and suffering, emotional distress).
- Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and are only available in cases where the defendant’s conduct was willful, wanton, or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights. For example, punitive damages may be available in cases where the defendant knew their dog was violent but failed to take measures to prevent them from harming the plaintiff.
While Kevin was mowing the lawn in the backyard, he heard a commotion and realized the Chow Chow dogs were attacking Valerie. He managed to get the dogs off Valerie and carry her into Gloria’s house.
Valerie was rushed to the hospital where she underwent surgery. Her injuries required a 3-day stay in the hospital and resulted in $6,850 in medical bills. The injuries emotionally disturbed Valerie to the point that her mother had to sleep in her room with the light on for 4 months. Her injuries caused permanent scars. What’s more, Valerie testified that she could no longer participate in volleyball, soccer, baseball, or basketball as she did before due to her injuries.
After a trial, the court awarded Valerie $6,850 in economic damages and $15,000 in non-economic damages. The court refused to allow punitive damages, explaining that there was no evidence that the dogs had ever attempted to attack anyone prior to attacking Valerie.
Will insurance cover dog bites?
It’s common for dog bite victims to be friends or relatives of the owner of the dog that bit them. This can create a difficult situation in which the victim needs money for medical care but doesn’t want to sue the friend or relative.
Insurance may be the perfect solution to this problem.
Depending on the policy and the circumstances surrounding the dog bite, a dog owner’s homeowner’s insurance policy may cover liability arising from dog bites that occur on the owner’s property.
Steps to take if you’re injured by a dog in South Carolina
Step 1: Seek medical attention
Your health should be your top priority. If you need emergency medical attention, call an ambulance or have someone call one for you. Even if you don’t need emergency medical attention, it’s a good idea to see a doctor following a dog bite or animal attack. This will help prevent a minor injury from becoming worse.
What’s more, proving that you saw a doctor soon after the dog bite will help any future lawsuit.
South Carolina requires that any physician who treats a dog bite victim report the bite to the local county health department. If no physician reports the bite, it’s the responsibility of the bitten adult or the parent of a bitten minor to report the bite to the county health department.
Regardless, it’s a good idea to report a dog bite to the authorities (police, animal control, or the health department). A record of a report will help your case if you later file a lawsuit. Plus, the authorities may conduct an investigation that could help support your claim.
Step 3: Collect the available evidence
If you’re able to do so, collect as much evidence of the attack as you can. This might include:
- The owner’s contact information
- The contact information for any witnesses
- Photographs of the dog, surrounding area, and your injuries
- Physical evidence of the dog bite (such as bloodied clothes)
Step 4: Talk to a personal injury attorney
Remember, the statute of limitations for dog bite lawsuits is 3 years. However, it takes time to conduct an investigation and file a lawsuit. Accordingly, it’s important to meet with an attorney as soon as possible. Most initial consultations are free and your attorney will be able to help you preserve your rights.
If you need help finding an attorney near you, visit our free online legal directory.