Brandon was only 3 years old but he loved dogs. The family dog was Samson, a big, cuddly golden retriever who not only tolerated Brandon's hugs and kisses, but also the occasional tail pull or misplaced step on a paw. Unfortunately, not all dogs are like Samson, and any dog, under the right circumstances, may attack and bite.
One day while walking with his mother at a public park, Brandon bent down to hug an apparently docile dog whose owner dutifully kept the dog on a leash. The dog had no prior history of biting or aggression. Rather, he had always been overtly friendly and enjoyed long walks at the local public park. On this day, for whatever reason, when Brandon put his face down to cuddle the dog's neck, this dog reacted with quick, brutal instinct. There was no time for his owner to even pull the leash taut. The dog lunged and attacked Brandon, biting his face and ripping Brandon's lip, nearly severing it from his mouth. An emergency room visit, 20 stiches, several years and two plastic surgeries later, Brandon has nearly recovered from his physical injuries, but he now suffers from nightmares and a deep fear of dogs.
Is the owner of the dog that attacked Brandon liable? If so, what damages may Brandon and his parents recover for this brutal attack? In Missouri, the owner of a dog that attacks a person without provocation is strictly liable for damages suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the dog's former viciousness or the dog owner's knowledge of such viciousness. RSMo. Section 273.036.1 states:
The owner or possessor of any dog that bites, without provocation, any person while such person is on public property, or lawfully on private property, including the property of the owner or possessor of the dog, is strictly liable for damages suffered by persons bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner's or possessor's knowledge of such viciousness. Owners and possessors of dogs shall also be strictly liable for any damage to property or livestock proximately caused by their dogs. If it is determined that the damaged party had fault in the incident, any damages owed by the owner or possessor of the biting dog shall be reduced by the same percentage that the damaged party's fault contributed to the incident…
Brandon and his parents are entitled to recover damages from the owner of the dog. These damages include the full cost of Brandon's medical care and surgeries, money for pain and suffering, and the cost for future medical care and psychological counseling that Brandon might require. Although the statute provides for comparative fault, in an unprovoked attack like this it is unlikely that a judge or jury would apply comparative fault to a 3 year old child.
There are several lessons to be learned from this story. First, protect your children and teach them that not all dogs are friendly. Never pet a strange dog, and more importantly, never permit your child to place his or her face near that of a strange dog. Dogs can sometimes take such action as a sign of aggression and attack out of instinct. It's just not worth the risk.
As a dog owner, always keep your dog on a leash when outside or in public locations. While it is best not to allow strangers to pet your dog, if you do so, keep the leash taut and never allow a child to "cuddle" the dog "get in the face" of the dog. While your homeowner's insurance may provide insurance coverage to you if your dog does attack, be sure to ask your agent about coverage. Some companies are now excluding dog bite attacks from coverage unless you pay a special premium and add a rider to your policy to provide that coverage. If you own a dog, it is a very good idea to make sure that you have insurance coverage in place to protect your assets in the event that your dog bites someone.
At Call & Gentry Law Group, we have experience representing individuals injured by a vicious dog bite. Our attorneys know the law and have the skill to apply it in order to obtain maximum recovery for you or a family member that has suffered damages from a dog bite. Please feel free to give us a call at 573-644-6090 for more information or for a no-cost consultation to see if we can help.