what should you know about dog bite cases?

Let me tell you what I think about dog bite cases in the big picture sense, before we get to the legal theories and what a dog bite lawyer can do for you.

One of the things about dog bites is that they often happen to dog lovers. Dogs are unpredictable. We treat them like our children and forgive their flaws. From my observation, most owners don’t actually realize how their dogs are behaving. Just like most people think they are above average drivers, most people think they are above average dog owners.

But that’s not true. Unlike Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, we’re not all above average all of the time. In reality, some dog owners are below average and fail to exercise basic control over their dogs. And those dogs may bite people.

If you’re on a lawyer’s website reading about dog bites, chances are you get it. You have experienced the consequences of a dog bite. But you may be worried that by considering a legal claim, you’re making something a big deal that isn’t. I disagree.

Dogs are pack animals. All dogs need to understand that they are second to people. Dogs need to be trained to respect people. When I see a dog that jumps up on a stranger or acts aggressively toward a child, and the owner laughs—or does anything other than correct the dog—then that owner is not doing their job. They are actually being cruel to the dog, because they’re allowing that dog to act aggressively against people. If that dog bites someone, it can be put down. And that dog can really, really hurt someone in the process.

Dog bites can be unexpectedly vicious. Many breeds of dogs have been trained to protect humans or hunt prey. When instinct takes over, a dog may lock its jaws. There are cases in Wyoming where a parent struggled to pry the jaws of a known dangerous dog off of their seven-year-old daughter’s face for several minutes. That shouldn’t happen.

What can a dog bite lawyer do?

Wyoming recognizes three different claims against a dog owner for a dog bite:

Prior knowledge of dangerous propensity.

Where the owner keeps an animal that they know to be dangerous, then the owner is strictly liable for the injuries. The key to strict liability is that the owner knows the animal is actually dangerous and the harm suffered is the kind the owner knows of the risk of. For example, imagine an owner that keeps a dog that has bit someone in the past. If the owner doesn’t do anything, and lets the dog continue to have the opportunity to bite people, then the owner is responsible for the dog bite. Or imagine a horse owner that knows their horse bucks as soon as it gets out of the corral. If they put you on the horse and take you out of the corral, and you get bucked off, then they are responsible.

Negligent care of the animal.

This is just ordinary negligence. Maybe the owner brings the dog to a Fourth of July party, where there are a lot of fireworks and children. The owners light off fireworks near the dog. It gets riled up and bites a child. That’s on the owners.

Violation of a statute or ordinance not to let a domestic animal run at large.

A lot of towns and municipalities prohibit dogs from being loose. Pet owners are required to keep their dogs in their yards, whether the dog is fenced in or leashed, or something else. If the dog gets loose, the owner is responsible.

One situation that I am curious about is voice command requirements. In Teton County, where I live, the parks and bike paths require dogs to be under voice command. I don’t know what a good definition of voice command is. A lot of dogs will come when called most of the time. But no dog is perfect—especially around wildlife or an unpredictable situation. If the dog is acting aggressively, and the owner calls it back, what happens if the dog ignores the owner? It’s not under voice command. Its instincts took over. My guess is that violates the ordinance, and the owner is responsible. I do not believe that’s been tested in a Wyoming court.

Another situation is the national parks. The rules for dogs in Yellowstone are strict, and rightfully so. It’s wilderness and dogs aren’t supposed to chase buffalo. My reading of the rules is that you can have a dog on a six-foot leash only on pavement. If a dog bit you while on a trail in Yellowstone, then I think that owner is liable because they’re breaking the rules. I’m not familiar with any cases testing that issue either.

Here’s an alternate situation: You may be reading this and thinking that you don’t want to get a lawyer involved. For example, what if it’s your neighbor’s dog and you basically get along with your neighbor. You probably don’t want to hire a lawyer since you think that you can count on your neighbor to do the right thing and take care of your medical bills. If that happens, great.

But if you have any need for serious medical treatment, or permanent scarring, you probably need more compensation for your medical bills and pain and suffering than your neighbor has available is willing to pay you. In that case, hopefully your neighbor has a homeowner’s or umbrella insurance policy.

When you’re dealing with an insurance company over a significant sum of money, my opinion is that you need a lawyer. Don’t count on being able to get a fair result for something like a dog bite by negotiating on your own with an insurance company. That’s just not how the game is played.