The Center for Disease Control reports more than 800,000 dog bite cases occur each year with about 334,000 of those requiring hospitalization. About one-half of the 800,000 of dog bites occur to children. The number of fatal dog bites ranges from 30-50 per year. You can see by the sobering numbers, dog-bites are a serious problem in the United States.
To encourage pet owners to be responsible in caring for their dogs and to compensate those injured by dog bites, the Michigan Legislature enacted a statute that makes owners of dogs liable when their dog bites another person. MCLS § 287.531 states “If a dog bites a person, without provocation while the person is on public property, or lawfully on private property…the owner of the dog shall be liable for any damages suffered by the person bitten…”
This article will provide a summary of the legal issues involving dog-bite cases.
The Dog-Bite Owner Liability statute, MCLS § 287.531, is considered a “strict liability” statute because it creates absolute liability on the owner of a dog who bites another person. Under the statute, if a person can prove a dog bit him or her, then the owner of the dog is liable subject to a few possible defenses.
There are a few defenses a dog owner can use to defeat a claim of strict liability created by MCLS § 287.531. First, if the dog who bites was on public property, then liability to the dog’s owner only attaches if the dog was not provoked. Second, if the dog who bites was on private property, then the bitten person must be lawfully on the private property to prevail on a claim under MCL § 287.531. In the absence of either of these two exceptions, the owner of a dog that bites—no matter how much care he or she uses to make sure the dog does not bite—is strictly liable for the injuries sustained by the bitten person.
The bulk of litigation involving dog-bites is not whether or not a dog has bitten a person. Rather, the issue is whether or not the dog was provoked. If the dog was provoked before biting, then generally the bitten person will not be able to recover from the dog’s owner. Similar to provocation is whether or not the person bitten was lawfully present at the dog-owner’s property. If the person bitten was a trespasser or otherwise unlawfully present at the dog-owner’s home, then he or she will not be able to recover under MCLS § 287.531.
Common Law Negligence
A second, alternate theory, to establish liability for a dog bite is through common law negligence. The owner of a dog can be liable under negligence if a person bitten can prove: 1) a duty on the part of the dog owner; 2) a breach of the duty by the dog owner; 3) causation; and 4) damages.
A landowner has a general duty to protect persons lawfully on their property from unreasonable dangers present on their property, which includes dogs who are reasonably expected to bite. A critical issue is whether the person was lawfully present on the landowner’s property. The Michigan Court of Appeals divides persons on the property of another as either a licensee or trespasser. A licensee is a person who is invited on to the property of the landowner or who is otherwise lawfully present. By contrast, a trespasser is a person who is present on the property of the landowner without his or her consent. The distinction between licensee and trespasser is significant because the landowner owes no duty to the trespasser except to refrain from injuring him or her by 'wilful and wanton' dangers. Kelsey v. Lint, 322 Mich. App. 364, 378, 912 N.W.2d 862 (2017).
In those cases where the landowner breaches the duty by not taking reasonable steps to protect persons lawfully on their property and the resulting breach of the duty causes injuries to a person, then the landowner would be liable for the persons damages.
The costs from a dog bite can be varied and equally extensive. Often times, a person bitten by a dog will suffer avulsion or disfigurement from the tearing of skin. Besides being extremely painful, the tearing of skin can require multiple grafts and plastic surgeries to reconstruct a bitten person’s face or body.
Damages from dog bites are generally described by two categories: 1) economic and 2) non-economic. “Economic damages” represent the medical costs, rehabilitation, personal care, and funeral expenses that result from the dog bite. Also, included in economic damages are compensation for the permanent disfigurement. Costs of plastic surgery are considered economic damages. “Non-economic damages” contain the pain and suffering produced through the dog bite, resulting surgeries, and time involved with healing. The distinction is important because there may be statutory limits on the non-economic damages that can be recovered.
Many dog bites occur on the property of private landowners. This is significant because usually a homeowner will have insurance to compensate persons bitten in the yard of a homeowner. The existence of a valid insurance agreement by the homeowner can simplify and ease the ability of the bitten person to receive adequate compensation for his or her injuries.
Another benefit of a homeowner’s insurance policy is they generally extend coverage to dog bites occurring on public property. Even though a dog bites in a person in a public park, the dog owner’s homeowner’s insurance policy will ordinarily provide coverage for the injuries to the bitten person.
The State of Michigan restricts how minors can bring lawsuits. Thus, if a minor is injured by a dog bite, then he or she can only bring a lawsuit to recover for his or her injuries with a person appointed by the Court. The person appointed could be a “Next Friend” or “guardian/conservator” depending on the facts of a particular situation.
The importance of a third person assisting a minor bringing suit exists because the minor cannot bring suit by himself or herself. The potential for delay in any lawsuit is a critical issue. However, with minors and their reliance on third parties, it is important for the third party adults to timely act for the benefit of the bitten minor.
At Arnold E. Reed & Associates, P.C., have a team of experienced litigators. Our team has handled many dog bite cases. We can help a victim of a dog bite get the recovery he or she deserves.