This week’s question comes from Irina in San Francisco, who writes:
Q: “Chris, I own a small rescue dog who is afraid of larger dogs. My son and I were walking our dog, on-leash, on the sidewalk to a nearby park when suddenly an off-leash Rottweiler came around the corner and bounded up to my dog. Afraid for my dog, I reached down to pick him up. The Rottweiler jumped up on me, viciously biting my arm just above my elbow and drawing blood. Throughout the ordeal, my 6-year-old son was screaming and crying. I was afraid the Rottweiler was going to kill me, my son or the dog. Finally, the owner of the dog ran up and pulled his dog off me, said he was sorry and that his dog had never acted this way before. I had to go to the hospital, where I was treated for the puncture wounds. The dog also lacerated a tendon near my elbow, and I may need surgery. I have developed an infection and am now taking antibiotics. I’m told I will have a permanent scar from the bite marks. My son is in therapy now as he shakes and starts breathing rapidly when he encounters a large dog.
The dog owner got nasty when I told him his dog should be on a leash. He seemed offended and said if my dog hadn’t barked, he wouldn’t have bitten. I called the police, and he started walking away so I took his picture. They arrived and found him in the park. He is a finance guy living in a big house in Noe Valley. I always thought people that filed lawsuits were just trying to make a quick dollar, but now that my son and I have been injured by this guy’s careless attitude, I can see why people sue guys like him. I want to know what my rights are. I have medical bills, lost time at work, need future plastic surgery and my son is in therapy.”
A: Irina, I am sorry to learn of the injuries you and your son suffered. For anyone thinking that this is an isolated incident, here are some statistics: In 2016, 31 dog attacks in the U.S. resulted in human death; 13 victims were children and 18 were adults. The Center for Disease Control reports there are more than 4.5 million dog bites annually sending more than 750,000 people to the hospital. Often, it is not the dog that is the problem; it’s the irresponsible owner who has trained the dog to be aggressive or let them run off leash.
In California, the owner of a dog that bites someone (with limited exception for on-duty police dogs, protection dogs, dogs biting burglars, etc.) is legally responsible for all injuries the dog causes. We call this “strict liability.” When the dog bites, liability exists against the owner regardless of the breed or how careful the owner was in restraining the dog.
Irina, you were walking on a public sidewalk and bit by a dog. That is sufficient to establish liability for the dog owner. You may be entitled to obtain damages for your medical expenses, past and future, wage loss and compensation for shock, anxiety, fear, emotional distress and pain.
Given that the dog lunged in the direction of both you and your son, he, too, would have a claim for negligence as he was put in reasonable fear of injury or death. Moreover, a doctrine called “negligent infliction of emotional distress” (NIED) can create liability for the dog owner.
There are four elements of a NIED claim: (1.) The plaintiff is closely related to injury victim, (2.) is present at the scene of the injury-producing event, (3.) was aware at the time that the victim was being injured and (4.) as a result suffered emotional distress. The worse cases of this type, which I have seen, are those where a parent has witnessed the death of their child or vice-versa. A person who has suffered NIED has a legal claim entirely separate from their own personal injury claim. The facts that you have provided suggest that you and your son may have claims for personal injury and NIED.
After a dog bite, if the owner can’t demonstrate a current rabies vaccination, the dog may be ordered quarantined for observation by the owner or a vet. If the dog runs off, you may require a series of five shots over a 28-day period. If you are bit by an unknown or wild animal, get treatment immediately and in no event later than six days. Rabies causes serious neurological injury, and once symptoms appear, the condition can be fatal.
Irina, the law can put a leash on this negligent dog owner and hold him responsible for what the dog did to you and your son. I recommend you speak to a trial lawyer knowledgeable in the area of animal/dog attack law. Most trial lawyers don’t charge for a consultation and handle your case on a contingency, meaning they only get paid if they obtain a recovery for you.