Maryland dog bite law is based on a fault system.
This is a more common problem than you might know. It is estimated that more than 4.7 million people in this country are bitten by dogs each year and that as many as 1 million per year seek medical attention for dog bites. That means that every 30 seconds or so of every day, someone in the United States is seeking medical care for a dog bite injury.
Statistics also show that about 60% of all dog bite attacks happen in the home and that more than half of all dog bite victims are children.
Those of us who focus on Maryland dog bite law usually describe dog bite claims as having two components which we commonly call “liability” and “damages.”
“Liability” is legal shorthand for the question “Is the dog owner legally responsible for the dog bite injuries?”
If the answer is “no,” of course you have no case. If the answer is “yes,” you satisfy this essential of a good case under Maryland dog bite law and can continue to analyze the other factors.
Even if you think that there is no “liability,” you may want to check with a Maryland dog bite lawyer for a free consultation before abandoning the claim.
Under Maryland dog bite law, an owner can be responsible for her dog’s actions in two situations.
The first, which the law calls “strict liability,” is where the owner knew — or should have known — of her animal’s propensity to cause harm to humans. If the dog has bitten a person before, you have a strong liability case. Even if the dog has not bitten before, if it has done things that were threatening to humans, such as growl at them or lunge at them, you have a strong liability case. The more times any of these has happened, the stronger the liability case under Maryland dog bite law.
A history of threatening other animals, however, is not sufficient to impose strict liability. There must have been previous bites or threats to humans.
As of April 26, 2012, there is new law in Maryland concerning bites by pit bulls. Under a Maryland Court of Appeals decision called Tracey v. Solesky, pit bulls are presumed to be dangerous. If they bite someone, the owner will be financially responsible for the harm done. In addition, any other person who has the right to control the pit bull’s presence on the premises where the bite occurs — that is, a landlord — is also responsible. In other words, where pit bulls are involved, it is no longer necessary to prove the dangerous propensities of the particular dog or of the breed. To establish your case, it is simply necessary to show that those responsible knew, or should have known, that the dog was a pit bull.
Strict liability is what most think of when they think about Maryland dog bit law. They incorrectly believe that an owner is responsible for his dog’s bites ONLY if the dog had a history of biting.
Actually, there is a second situation where an owner can be responsible — “liable” — for her dog’s bites. Maryland dog bite law refers to this as “negligence.” It applies where a dog owner “exercises ineffective control of an animal in a situation where it would reasonably be expected that injury could occur.”
Generally, the amount of control that the owner must exert under Maryland dog bite law depends on what she knows about the dog’s propensities. And, an owner is responsible for knowing more about a dog’s propensities than simply its propensity to bite.
Here’s an example that is an actual Maryland case. It doesn’t involve a dog bite, but instead it involves injuries caused by a dog’s actions.
A couple was riding a tandem bicycle when a dog suddenly ran into their path causing them to crash and injure themselves. The dog owners knew that their dog was even tempered — it had no history of biting or threatening people — but they also knew that it would leave the yard anytime it was given the chance. That’s what happened here. The dog ran out an open gate, disobeyed the owner’s commands to come back and caused the bicycle crash. These owners were responsible for the injuries received by the bicycling couple because they didn’t exercise adequate control of their dog under circumstances that could be dangerous — that is, the dog running out of the fenced yard.
Another factor that enters into this is the leash laws that exist in most Maryland cities and counties. They establish an amount of control that an owner must exert. Usually, they provide that a dog must be restrained and cannot run “at large.” Violations of leash laws establish a case against the owner under Maryland dog bite law, even if the dog had no history of biting.
Sometimes — in fact often — dog bites occur on private property. In that situation, another body of law applies and must be considered. In legal lingo, these are the rules of “premises liability.” The important thing to remember about these rules, in the context of a dog bite case, is that your liability case is stronger under Maryland dog bite law if you are in a business establishment or someplace where you have been invited than if you are trespassing on the property where you are bitten. In fact, if you are a trespasser, you probably have no claim at all.
As you can see, a determination of whether an animal owner is responsible for his animal’s bites can be complicated. An experienced Maryland dog bite lawyer can analyze and evaluate your potential claim and tell you whether it is worth pursuing.
To be able to prove liability, you should do as many of these things as possible . . .
- Ask the owner about the dog’s history and write down what you are told.
- Talk to neighbors about the same thing.
- Write down all of the circumstances of the injury. Draw a diagram of the scene.
- If you can, get a medical history of the dog.
- Obtain records from Animal Control concerning the dog’s history.
- Obtain obedience/training school records if they exist.
- Obtain police reports.
- Get medical reports concerning treatment of the injuries.
- Get ambulance reports.
- Especially if the injuries are very serious, take action to have the dog evaluated by experts.
- Get statements — preferably written — from witnesses.
If you decide to hire a Maryland dog bite lawyer, you should do so as soon as possible to give your lawyer time to investigate and evaluate your claim.
Defenses To Liability Claims
The insurance company for the dog owner may deny that the dog owner is responsible for your injury.
For example, if the injury occurred on private property and the victim was a trespasser or a “bare licensee,” the defense will argue that the property owner did not violate the limited duty that they owed.
Instead, or in addition, the insurance company may raise defenses. One common defense is “contributory negligence.” Another is “assumption of risk.” Let me explain these further.
The alternative to contributory negligence that exists in most states is called “comparative negligence,” a much better and more fair rule.
Under comparative negligence, which varies slightly among the states that have this rule, the fault of the two parties is “compared” and the one who is more at fault pays while the one who is less at fault has his or her claim reduced by the percentage of their fault. For example, if Jones is 90% responsible for causing a dog bite and Smith is 10% at fault, Smith can recover from Jones for her injuries, but Smith can only recover 90% of full compensation.
Unfortunately, Maryland is one of only 4 states that has a very harsh rule called “contributory negligence.” If it exists, contributory negligence defeats your claim.
This means that if you contributed in any way to causing your dog bite, you have no claim against the dog owner who was the primary cause of your dog bite. In theory, if you are only 1% responsible for causing the dog bite and someone else is 99% at fault, under Maryland dog bite law you are not entitled to recover from the dog owner!
The defense may argue that the victim provoked the dog. If so, that would constitute “contributory negligence.”
Assumption of Risk
In Maryland dog bite law, assumption of risk means that you willingly and voluntarily assumed a known risk. If you did, you have no claim if the risk you assumed injured you.
An example is not heeding a warning to avoid a dog. Since you were warned to stay away, with limited exceptions, you cannot recover from the dog owner if the dog bites you. You assumed the risk that would happen.
If the dog owner is at fault, and you did not contribute to causing your dog bite or voluntarily assume a known risk, there is “liability” and you can recover your “damages.”
“Damages” is the term that refers to the consequences of the other party’s carelessness. In other words, “What harm did the carelessness cause?”
Under Maryland dog bite law, damages include economic losses and noneconomic losses.
The economic losses, that you can recover include . . .
- all medical bills you incurred treating injuries that result from the accident,
- any loss of income, such as employment income, and
- any other economic losses that result from the accident.
If Maryland dog bite law merely required the careless person to pay for your financial losses, you would not be fully and fairly compensated.
The economic losses are not what you will remember years later about this experience. What you will remember more is the pain of your injuries, the mental uncertainty, the sleepless nights (or whatever your symptoms were) and the disruption to your life that the careless dog owner caused.
Because you did nothing to cause these losses, fundamental fairness — and Maryland dog bite law — require the one who caused your injuries to compensate you in money damages for such noneconomic losses as . . .
- physical pain
- mental anguish
- disfigurement (such as scars from your bite injuries)
- physical impairment
- damage to your marital relationship.
To be able to prove these losses, keep a diary which answers this question: How has this accident affected my life?
If you hire a Maryland dog bite lawyer, your lawyer will help you gather and develop the evidence of your noneconomic losses.
Defenses To Damage Claims
You must be able to prove that the dog bite caused your injuries and damages.
Normally, it will be obvious that your injuries are the result of being bitten.
However, if it is not clear — if, for example, you have suffered psychological damages such as PTSD as a result of your dog bite — the defending insurance company may raise the defense that something other than the dog bite caused your damages. They may claim that the “real cause” (their term, not mine) of your damages was an earlier incident or a later incident . . . or anything else they can think of.
Normally, you will defeat these claims with expert testimony, such as your doctor’s opinion that your injuries are the result of being bitten.
How Much Are You Entitled To Recover For Your Injuries?
The amount of compensation you are entitled to receive for your injuries depends on the circumstances of your case. Obviously, that determination will depend on such things as . . .
- how seriously you are injured
- how long you suffer with your injuries and
- whether you recover fully
What you want is a full and speedy recovery from your injuries. If that happens, you will still have a claim against the responsible dog owner, but it will be for less than the claim that you will have if you do not recover quickly or completely.
Fair compensation for your injuries under Maryland dog bite law includes the full amount of the medical bills that were caused by being bitten, the full amount of the income that you lost as a result of the incident and an additional amount for pain, suffering, inconvenience and the like.
The end result could be as little as about 1 1/2 times your out-of-pocket losses for your medical bills and loss of income to an amount 10 times your financial losses, or more, if your injuries are very severe and permanent.
Permanent consequences of the dog bite, such as severe scarring, demand substantial compensation.
Here’s a rule-of-thumb to keep in mind: the more seriously you are injured, and therefore the more you are entitled to recover as damages, the more the “Bad Guys” will resist you. If you have been seriously injured and have substantial losses, you should have an experienced Maryland dog bite lawyer on your side protecting your interests.
Can You Collect?
If you have a claim that entitles you to, say even a million dollars, but the person that you have the claim against has nothing, you probably won’t recover anything. You know, can’t get blood out of a stone.
If liability exists, the owner is financially responsible under the law; but, practically, you may not be able to collect from that person.
Where do you turn?
There may be insurance that covers dog bite injuries. They may be covered by the dog owner’s homeowner’s insurance or renter’s insurance, or, in the case of a store, their liability insurance. However, more and more liability policies of this sort are excluding from coverage so-called “dangerous animals” such as Pit Bulls and Rottweilers.
Obviously, an experienced and capable Maryland dog bite lawyer can help you answer this practical question of whether there is any way to recover for your injuries.
These are the general rules of Maryland dog bite law. However, remember that laws change and that it may require an experienced dog bite lawyer to help you apply the facts of your case to the law to determine your rights. Especially if the injuries are serious, you should consult a lawyer. Most lawyers will give a free initial consultation, so you have little or nothing to lose!
To learn more about Maryland dog bite law, contact us.