Proving Liability in a Houston Dog Bite Case
A recent dog bite case in Texas exemplifies the ways in which an experienced dog bite lawyer can show a dog owner to be liable when their dog attacks and bites somebody. In the case of Turner v. Duggin, a Texas Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict awarding the plaintiff $700,000.00 (including $75,000.00 in punitive damages) after she was attacked and bitten by her neighbor’s dog.
The court mentioned the various factors used to determine responsibility for a dog bite including the differences between the owner of a vicious dog and the negligent handling of a dog not known to be vicious.
The court noted that the owner of a vicious animal can be held strictly liable for harm it causes to somebody. A general negligence claim requires four elements, duty, breach of the duty, causation and damages.
In a strict liability claim, an injured dog bite victim would not need to offer evidence of the dog owner negligence (duty and breach) – only that he or she was bitten by the dog and that it caused injuries (causation and damages).
So how do you show a dog is vicious?
There are many ways but these are some of the most common types of proof showing viciousness of a dog:
- Breed of the dog. It is a known fact that some dogs are naturally more vicious than others. Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, German Shepherds are some of the dogs that are more likely to bite than more mild-mannered breeds such as golden retrievers or multi poos. However, any type of dog can be considered vicious as shown in the Turner case where the proof showed that the attacking vicious dog was a blue heeler mix.
- Prior attacks or bites by the dog. While there is always a first time a dog bites somebody, the fact is that it usually happens more than once. Showing that a dog has bitten or attacked in the past is a strong way of demonstrating it is vicious. Evidence of prior attacks can be gathered from the following:
- Neighbors. Neighbors usually are aware of a dangerous dog on their street and can offer evidence of other times it has attacked people.
- Letter Carriers. They are in the neighborhood every day and carry pepper spray for a reason. They know which dogs regularly try to attack them and they often document violent dogs with their postmaster.
- Animal Control Department. Most cities and counties have animal control departments which investigate complaints of dog bites and vicious dogs. Prior complaints and investigations are available and can document other times the dog has attacked or bitten somebody.
- Police, Sheriff or Constable Reports. Dog attacks are often reported to the police and they can provide records of any prior complaints against an owner or related the address where the dog stays.
- Training. The court of appeals and the trial court heard evidence that the dog had been specifically trained to “bite on command.” For various reasons, people often train their dog to attack. An owner that does this is specifically aware that the dog is vicious and can and should be held accountable if the animal attacks a child or adult.
Even if there is no knowledge by the owner that the dog is vicious, they can still be held responsible if they are negligent in the handling of the animal. Negligent handling can be any number of actions such as:
- Allowing the dog to roam free of the yard.
- Leaving the gate open.
- Walking the dog without a leash.
- Allowing children to jump on the dog or play with it roughly.
- Not supervising the dog properly.
Punitive Damages in a Dog Bite Case.
As mentioned the trial court awarded punitive damages in the dog bite case. Punitive damages are damages over and above the actual damages such as pain and suffering and medical expenses.
These damages are awarded to punish the defendant for such egregious conduct and gross negligence. Gross negligence is more than momentary thoughtlessness, inadvertence or error of judgment. “It is an act of omission (A) which when viewed objectively from the standpoint of the actor at the time of its occurrence involves an extreme degree of risk, considering the probability and magnitude of the potential harm to others; and (B) of which the actor has actual, subjective awareness of the risk involved, but nevertheless proceeds with conscious indifference to the rights, safety or welfare of others.” Given the actions of the defendant in training the dog to bite as well as knowledge of all the prior attacks by the dog, the court felt punitive damages were appropriate.
Having a Dog Declared a Public Nuisance.
The city of Houston has a procedure to prevent further attacks by a dog by having the animal control department declare a dog a public nuisance and having it destroyed to prevent further injuries. It is found in the City of Houston Ordinances which provides, Public Nuisance dog (Chapter 6, Article VI, Section 151) means any dog that meets one of the following conditions:
- Substantially interferes with the right to enjoyment of life or property by persons other than the owner by acts including, but not limited to, frequent, long, or continued barking or howling, repeated defecation on property other than that of the owner, or damaging property other than that of the owner;
- Attacks domestic animals;
- Is documented by Animal Enforcement, a police officer, a neighborhood protection official or a member of the public to be running at large three or more times in a 12-month period; or
- Is one of a number of dogs or other animals maintained on the property owned or controlled by its owner so as to be dangerous to the public health, safety or welfare.
For purposes of this section, if a dog is documented to be at large three or more times in a 12-month period by a member of the public, such documentation must consist of photographic evidence with a date and time stamp and in which the dog can be clearly identified.
There are many other ways to prove a claim for a dog bite case. For more information, contact Board Certified Injury attorney Michael P. Fleming for a free consultation.