Can I make a compensation claim for a dog bite injury?
The law in Ireland concerning dog bite injury compensation is governed by Section 21 of the Control of Dogs Act 1986. The Act is perhaps primarily concerned with the security of livestock; however its provisions do indeed provide protection to people as well. In short, a dog owner is strictly liable for injuries caused by his or her dog as a result of an attack by it.
“21. —(1) The owner of a dog shall be liable in damages for damage caused in an attack on any person by the dog and for injury done by it to any livestock; and it shall not be necessary for the person seeking such damages to show a previous mischievous propensity in the dog, or the owner’s knowledge of such previous propensity, or to show that such injury or damage was attributable to neglect on the part of the owner.”
Checklist for making a claim:
- You must identify the dog owner
- The dog owner must have owner’s insurance or be covered by a household policy
- The victim must have suffered a physical injury
- You need medical records and preferably have reported it to the Gardai
More often than not personal injury compensation is paid to a successful plaintiff by the defendant’s insurance company. In a road traffic accident or a fall due to hazardous conditions in a place of business for example, the defendant is obliged to own a suitable policy of insurance to protect themselves in such circumstances. Where, for example, a police dog or an official guard dog has attacked and injured an individual that person’s personal injury claim will ordinarily be defended by the insurance company on behalf of the dog’s owner.
The average dog owner, however, is a private individual who may not have an adequate insurance policy in place. If the plaintiff wins his case, the dog owner may be obliged to pay the compensation out of their own pocket. This is not always straightforward as very often it may be the case that the individual does not have the financial means to pay any compensation and cannot therefore be obligated in law to do so. This is known as the doctrine of the “Man of Straw”.
In either situation you should always contact a solicitor as soon as possible to discuss what options are open to you and if a successful claim is a possibility. Remember; there is nothing to lose by making that initial inquiry.
Injury or damage
A personal injury claim is that it is exactly that; a personal injury claim. As terrifying as being chased by an angry and dangerous dog may be, one should note that for a claim to be successful (or even considered), the plaintiff must have sustained an injury either physical or psychological as a result of the incident. A potential plaintiff can only claim compensation for a personal injury, loss or damage that he or she has in reality sustained. A close call is insufficient to justify compensation being awarded.
Liability and Negligence
In normal circumstances, an essential part of a plaintiff’s personal injury claim is to show that the defendant was negligent in his duties which resulted, in full or part, in the plaintiff being injured. As outlined above, the dog owner is normally strictly liable when a dog attacks an individual. This is not to say however that a court will not find that the plaintiff himself was in fact to blame in certain circumstances. If the claimant for example was trespassing on property that was fenced in and had ignored clearly posted signs around it warning of the dangerous guard dogs on the premises, the court may rule in favour of the guard dogs’ owner.
After having been bitten by a dog
As obvious as it may seem, it should be remembered that your health and safety is more important than any potential claim that you may have. If you have been seriously hurt an ambulance should be called immediately.
It is of the utmost importance that you report to the casualty department of the nearest hospital, or at the very least make an emergency appointment with your general practitioner, should you have been injured by a dog. Even if you feel that your injuries are not particularly serious, a dog bite can be infectious and it is always advisable that you see a Doctor.
One should also be aware that attendance at hospital or with a G.P. is recorded in medical records which may later be used in evidence to support a claim.
Will I have to go to court for my dog bite injury claim?
Clients are often surprised to learn that very few personal injury cases ever go to trial. The vast majority, perhaps more than 97%, of such cases are settled between the parties beforehand. That is not to say of course that your solicitor (and in some circumstances barrister or barristers) are not ready and willing to do so. In practice however, personal injury cases (concerning dog bites or otherwise) will normally come before the court only where the plaintiff and defence have failed to agree on a suitable figure of compensation or where no compensation has been offered to the plaintiff/victim at all, i.e. the defendants assert that they are not liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. This situation may arise for example where there has been a disagreement over the facts or events of the incident itself.
Even when a court date has been set and both parties are fully prepared for a trial, a settlement can still be reached and it is in fact not unusual that a dog bite injury case is settled on the morning of the scheduled trial.
At a reasonably early stage of a dog bite injury case, the plaintiff’s legal team will decide in which court proceedings should be issued, i.e. the District Court which has jurisdiction to make awards of up to approximately €6000, the Circuit Court which has jurisdiction up to approximately €40,000, or the High Court which has an unlimited jurisdiction. This means that the lawyers have to make an estimation of the value of the case to place it in one of the aforementioned categories. It is however extremely difficult, if not impossible, to accurately value a case at an early stage and the court in which proceedings are issued may be changed accordingly at a later stage.
How is the value of my dog bite injury claim calculated?
The value of the dog bite claim does not necessarily increase with a more dramatic or frightening attack by a large and fearsome dog as opposed to a smaller one. It is to be remembered that compensation is awarded for the injuries that the plaintiff has actually sustained. Unless a psychological injury or trauma can be proven to have occurred as a result of the canine attack the nature of same is of secondary importance to the injuries suffered. Your solicitor or barrister will of course make reference to the dramatic or traumatic nature of the attack in negotiations or at trial as this may present a claim in a more sympathetic light and contribute favourably to the case.
Medical special damages
The costs of any specialist medical treatment required due to the injuries sustained in the subject dog attack can normally be compensated for in full or in part.
Type of injury
Injuries are valued according to their level of seriousness and whether or not they require expert proof (i.e. medical evidence) to be believed.
In the case of a dog bite injury perhaps the most common injury resulting from same is of course visible scarring. In the case of a scar the position of same is an important consideration. A facial scar is for example more likely to attract a higher compensation award than the same type and size of scar on the leg or back.
The permanency and persistence of the injury (e.g. is the scar likely to fade or disappear completely) are of course also important factors.
With regard to medical prognosis the most important consideration is whether or not the injuries sustained from the subject dog bite are likely to be long-term or even permanent. The simple rule of thumb is the longer the period of time that the symptoms are expected to be present the larger the compensation.
The age of the victim is also a key factor. If the injury is expected to have life-long consequences, the settlement value of same may be ‘worth’ more to a younger claimant than to an older person. This is very simply because a young person will have to cope with the consequences for a longer period of time. If, for example, an 18 year old man loses a limb the principle is that he (assuming he will enjoy a normal life expectancy) has to cope with that injury for potentially 60 years or more. A man of 78 years of age who suffers the same injury does, one may assume, not have to cope with that disability for the same length of time.
Medical history and records are important in the assessment of any claim. If a claimant has a prior history of similar or identical injuries and of treatment of the same area of the body this may affect the claim significantly. The key question is whether the dog bite was the primary cause of the injury or condition or only an aggravating factor?
Impairment of quality of life
The pain and suffering of an injury is not merely physical. The loss of quality of life due to our injuries is also a factor that must be considered. This is a very individual assessment for each plaintiff as every person’s passions and interests will be different; a dog bite injury to the index finger may for example cause greater personal suffering to a talented amateur pianist than it would to another client.
Severity and persistence of pain suffered
The very principal behind personal injury compensation is indeed to compensate for the injury and related suffering. The severity and persistence of the pain suffered as a result of the dog bite the higher the compensation awarded is likely to be.
Loss of earnings
Loss of earnings is in fact a separate aspect to the dog bite injury claim but it can cause frustration for both solicitors and barristers and be a source of miscomprehension for clients. Very often clients will compare their award or settlement to that of a friend or acquaintance who received “€40,000 more than I did!” for a similar type of dog bite injury.
It is important to realise that the extra money in question may be due to a significant loss of earnings which the other person was awarded due to a lengthy absence (or predicted absence from work). The figure awarded corresponds to that persons earning power or potential earning power. With respect to the loss of earnings aspect of the claim, the gravity of the injury itself is only relevant insofar as it restricts that person from working. Personal circumstances are perhaps the key factor and a different type of injury may have entirely different consequences for the plaintiff depending on their respective profession e.g. a serious bite injury to the calf of a professional footballer, the loss of a finger to a surgeon or a facial scar to a model.
It is important to note that each case is unique. If you have recently been the victim of a dog bite and feel that you have a potential personal injury claim you are advised to discuss all of the points raised in the preceding article with a solicitor at the earliest opportunity.
Copyright © 2009-2014 Eoin Campbell
About the Author
Eoin P. Campbell is an honours law graduate (LL.B) and qualified solicitor whose primary professional experience is the area of litigation and in particular personal injury claims. Eoin P. Campbell is currently lecturing in law at two universities in Lyon, France.