According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a million people seek medical attention for dog bite injuries every year. Connecticut certainly sees its share. Like other states, Connecticut has enacted a special statute that you can use to hold a dog owner liable to compensate you for personal injury caused by their dog. You might also be able to file a claim against a third party based on negligence law.
Most Common Dog Bite Injuries
The following are some of the most common types of dog bite injuries:
- Laceration of the hands and arms. This often happens when someone tries to shield themselves from an attacking dog.
- Facial disfigurement. Dog bites to the face are common among victims who are small children, because a small child may stand at the same height as a dog.
- Psychological trauma, such as PTSD or the lifelong fear of dogs. Children are especially vulnerable. Facial scarring can also act as an indirect cause of psychological trauma due to social ostracism and a low self-image.
- Infections. A dog’s mouth, although cleaner than a human mouth, contains a lot of bacteria. Since the skin is the body’s best defense against bacterial infection, tearing the skin often results in an infection.
- Death. Unfortunately, a couple of dozen fatal dog attacks occur in the US every year.
First Steps to Take
Take the following actions immediately after a dog attack:
- Seek medical attention. The obvious reason is to obtain treatment for your injuries. A less obvious reason is to document your injuries so that you can seek compensation later.
- Obtain the dog owner’s contact information along with contact information for any witnesses: name, phone number, and address.
- File a dog bite report with your local animal control center.
- Retain an experienced dog bite lawyer to help you win compensation.
What You Have to Prove to Win Your Claim
The Connecticut dog bite statute requires you to prove certain “elements” of your claim on a “more likely than not” basis in order to win compensation. If these elements are proven, the defendant will be held strictly liable for the attack. That means you don’t have to prove that he acted negligently or that he had prior reason to know that his dog was aggressive. The following is a list of these elements.
Element 1: The Defendant Is the Owner or Keeper of the Dog
In many cases, it is easy to prove that the defendant is the owner of the dog. In some cases, however, ownership might not be so clear. Under Connecticut law, a “keeper” of a dog can be held liable. Connecticut law defines a keeper as a person who was responsible for maintaining and controlling the dog at the time of the attack.
Evidence that the defendant was the dog’s keeper could include evidence that the defendant was feeding, watering, exercising, sheltering, or otherwise caring for the dog. Keep in mind that, if the defendant is not the dog’s owner or keeper, he cannot be held liable under Connecticut’s dog bite statute. Nevertheless, you might be able to seek compensation under the negligence theory if the defendant’s negligent acts or omissions cause the attack.
If the owner or keeper of the dog is a minor (under 18), the parent or guardian of the minor can be held liable for the attack.
Element 2: You Were Physically Injured
The need to prove injury is one of the reasons why you should seek medical attention as soon as possible after a dog attack (don’t wait to see if an infection sets in, for example). Medical records should provide ample documentation of your injuries. As long as you were physically injured, it is possible to seek damages for psychological trauma as well. You might also seek compensation if, for example, the dog chased you into the path of an oncoming car.
Element 3: You Did Not Provoke the Dog
“Provocation” includes actions that would be expected to annoy or irritate a dog. Friendly playing with the dog does not normally constitute provocation. In some cases, an innocent act could be characterized as provocation, such as:
- accidentally stepping on the dog’s tail;
- petting a strange dog while he is eating or chained up; or
- trying to stop a dog fight.
Whether or not an innocent action constitutes provocation depends largely on the judge.
About half of all dog attack victims are children, presumably because many children are too young to realize when they are provoking a dog. Connecticut’s dog-bite statute presumes that a child younger than seven didn’t provoke the dog. What this means is that it will be up to the defendant to prove that the child provoked the dog, not up to the victim to prove that he didn’t provoke the dog. This can be very important in a lawsuit.
Element 4: You Were Not Committing a Tort at the Time of the Attack
A “tort” is a form of misconduct that violates someone else’s rights. If you were attacked by the defendant’s dog after you unjustly punched him in the nose, for example, you would not be able to recover compensation under the Connecticut dog bite statute – in fact, the defendant might be able to recover from you!
Element 5: You Were Not Trespassing
“Trespassing,” for the purposes of establishing dog bite liability, does not mean entering someone’s property to deliver the mail. Surprisingly, it also does not include simply entering someone’s property without permission (to take a shortcut, for example). Instead, it means entering for the purpose of committing an “injurious act.” A burglar, for example, cannot recover for a dog bite injury.
If the victim is a child younger than seven, it will be the defendant’s burden to prove that the child was trespassing, not the victim’s job to prove that he was not trespassing.
The average dog bite compensation for a dog attack is between $30,000 and $40,000, although amounts vary widely according to the severity of the injury. You may receive compensation for:
- medical expenses (including psychological counseling, if necessary);
- physical pain and suffering;
- mental anguish;
- lost income; and
- property damage (broken eyeglasses, for example).
Punitive damages can be awarded in addition to the foregoing compensation; however, they are only awarded in about four percent of all personal injury cases. To win punitive damages, you must show that the defendant acted with reckless indifference to your rights or with an intentional and wanton violation of your rights. Punitive damages might be available, for example, if the defendant intentionally “sicced” his dog on you.
Connecticut limits punitive damages to the cost of litigation, including attorney’s fees.
Suppose you were bitten and seriously injured by your neighbor’s dog, but your neighbor is your best friend. If you sue him, will you drive him into bankruptcy? Probably not, because most homeowners’ and rental insurance policies cover dog bites – in fact, about one-third of all homeowners’ insurance payouts go to dog bite victims. Claim limits typically range from $100,000 to $300,000, far more than the average dog bite payout.
Beware, however: Some insurers will not cover attacks by certain breeds of dogs, such as pit bulls and Rottweilers, and a few will not cover dog bites at all. It is likely that your neighbor will have to pay only the policy deductible and higher premiums in the future. The insurance company may even cancel the policy or exclude the dog from future coverage.
Suppose you are bitten by a stray dog in your apartment complex or by a dog owned by a tenant who lacks the insurance coverage to pay your claim? Under certain circumstances, you might be able to file a claim against the landlord of the apartment complex. You would not be able to rely on the Connecticut dog bite statute. Instead, you would rely on common law principles of negligence – you would have to prove that the landlord was at fault in some way.
Imagine this scenario. A tenant owns a dog who attacks and injures someone; the victim files a claim with the tenant’s renters’ insurance policy. In response, the insurance company pays the claim but excludes the dog from future coverage. Later, the dog attacks and injures you, but the tenant cannot pay your claim because he has no financial means and his renters’ insurance policy no longer covers the dog.
In this scenario, you might be able to file a lawsuit or seek a settlement with the landlord if the landlord knew or had reason to know that the dog was vicious (because of the previous attack) yet still allowed the tenant to keep the dog in the apartment complex. Other dog attack scenarios might also justify filing a claim against a third party, such as a kennel owner.
Once the above listed elements of a claim under Connecticut dog bite law are proven, there is no defense for a dog owner or keeper, except to prove that the statute of limitations has expired or to prove he is not actually the owner or keeper of the dog. If the claim is based on common law (against a landlord, for example), the defendant might rely on a handful of defenses such as comparative negligence (by claiming that you contributed to the attack by acting carelessly, for example).
The Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations sets the deadline by which you must file a courtroom lawsuit. If you miss the deadline, your claim will be barred and you will no longer be able to seek compensation. In most cases, Connecticut law allows you two years after the attack to file a lawsuit. If you miss the deadline, your claim will become worthless unless you have already negotiated a settlement and obtained a signed settlement agreement.
Don’t Delay – Contact Berkowitz Hanna Today
If you have been injured in a dog attack, call Berkowitz Hanna today or contact us online for a free initial case consultation. We serve clients from throughout Connecticut from our offices in Stamford, Bridgeport, Danbury, and Shelton.