Attorney Jim Bendell discusses why dogs bite, what to do if you’re bitten by a dog, and how to get compensated for your injuries.
John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. And I’m here today with attorney Jim Bendell of Bendell Law Firm. Jim is a personal injury lawyer serving the Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls area and all of Northern Idaho. Today our topic is what to do if you’re bitten by a dog in Idaho. Welcome, Jim.
Jim Bendell: Good afternoon.
John: So Jim, let’s start with some of the basics. What are some of the reasons why dogs might bite?
Why Do Dogs Bite?
Jim: Well, first of all, some dogs are just nasty. They have a predisposition to bite. They’ve actually done statistics on breeds that bite. And the most recent are that 22.5% of attacks are from Pit Bulls. 21.2% are from mixed breeds, whatever that means. And then 17.8% are from German Shepherds. Then there are some breeds that are so mild by nature, they just hardly ever bite at all. The second reason a dog might bite if it’s been poorly-trained by its owner or abused by an owner. An owner who keeps the dog chained outside 24/7 and the dog is continually frustrated and understandably so. And a third reason, some owners train their dogs to attack people. I guess they feel it’s a way of self-defense. And then the fourth reason would be if you provoke a dog. And sometimes this happens accidentally because a child may want to, say a four foot, three foot child may walk up to hug a dog and the dog perceives this as a threat, where the child didn’t mean it as a threat.
So there could be a whole host of reasons why a dog might bite. Another thing that I found interesting, there are some dogs who alone would never bite, but when they get with a group in a pack, they will become very dangerous. I had several cases where I in fact had defended a dog owner. She had three or four dogs, and she took them for a walk in a rural area, and they just went and attacked an alpaca and ripped its intestines out and killed it. And on their own, each individual dog would never do that. So there’s a lot of reasons why a dog might bite. That’s why you never take chances. When you see a dog and say, I want to walk up and pet that dog. Probably not a good idea.
John: Right. Certainly not without checking with the owners and making sure that it’s okay. I know that my mother and father-in-law had had a dog for many years and you couldn’t go near that dog if it was eating. If you had just fed it and it was, had its head in the bowl, you got near it and it would just start growling. And it never bit anybody or attacked anybody, but we also didn’t get too close to it because it started growling as soon as you would go near it.
Jim: You took the warning to heart.
John: Right. So there may be certain situations like that where a dog might be defending its food or, like you said, maybe when it gets into a pack situation with other dogs, it all of a sudden its demeanor changes. So there’s definitely different things, different situations that you have to be aware of.
Jim: That’s right.
Do All Breeds of Dogs Bite?
John: You mentioned that there are certain breeds that tend to bite more than other breeds, do all breeds of dogs bite or can they all be responsible for biting?
Jim: Well, among the most peaceful dogs with the least history of biting are Dalmatians, Pointers, Great Danes, Pekingese and Spitz. But I really can’t say that those dogs would never bite. I mean, if they were defending an owner or as you say, if you approach any dog while it’s eating, even if it’s a laid-back dog, it might growl at you. So when I was a kid, we had a very friendly Beagle, but when he was eating, even members of the family just didn’t approach him because he would growl. I mean, it was… Dogs operate a lot by instinct and unless they have super professional training, they will fall back on Mother Nature’s instructions and defend what they think they have to defend.
The First Things You Should Do If You’re Bitten by a Dog
John: Right. So what’s one of the first things that a person should do if they’re bitten by a dog or maybe if a family member is bitten by a dog?
Jim: Well, there are two things that you need to do and how you prioritize them, depends on how the bite occurs. So for example, if a pit bull, which has huge jaw strength, bites you and opens an artery, the first thing you got to do is call 911 to get medical attention. You could literally bleed to death. There are other wounds that are, especially children who are eye-level with the dog may have permanent facial scarring. So there you’ve got to get medical attention.
Now the other priority you’ve got to keep in mind is identifying who owns that dog. And sometimes the dogs will have a dog license. Although again, the problem here is if you approach the dog again to look at his license, you might be in for another bite. But you can ask neighbors or if the dog’s on a leash, ask someone, “Excuse me, what is your name?” Some way to identify who owns the dog.
Because you got to be thinking ahead. Who’s going to pay your medical bills? Who’s going to pay for time out of work? Who’s going to pay for permanent scarring of your child and so forth? So you have to make a decision. If you get a little nip on the arm, you’re still going to want to go to the doctor because the dog may have rabies.
And it doesn’t take much of a bite to give you rabies. Rabies is a fatal disease, unless shots are given. And the unfortunate part of it is that the rabies shots that have to be given are given in the abdomen over a period of 10 or 15 days are very painful. And you don’t want to have to go through it if the dog’s definitely not rabid. So that’s why identifying the owner of the dog, then you could find out if it has tags that it got rabies shots.
John: So if you know the dog or you know the dog owner, you can get the paperwork from the vet and find out yes, that dog has had its rabies shots. And so I’m safe. And I don’t have to go through all of those shots.
Jim: That’s right.
Knowing the Dog Owner vs Not Knowing the Owner
John: Is that the biggest difference then between when you know the dog or know the dog owner and when maybe you’re bitten by a stray dog or a dog that’s just running around and you don’t know who the owner is? It’s the rabies?
Jim: If you know who the owner is, there’s no need to worry about checking that out. If you know it. So your need then will be first and only medical. Get medical attention. I would go to the doctor right away. And then, he or she may have a way to make contact with… The local animal control may have registration of which dogs have been given their rabies shots. In many counties, I bet most counties, you’re legally required to have your dog regularly immunized against rabies, because like I say it’s a fatal disease. And it’s in the wilderness. I mean squirrels have rabies, raccoons have rabies. So it’s not rare to have your dog to get rabies from a bite or a fight with another animal. That’s why the dogs need regular shots to prevent getting rabies.
What Else Should a Dog Bite Victim Do?
John: Sure. What else should a person do after they’re bitten by a dog? Should they take pictures of the dog or take pictures of the scene? Should they talk to witnesses and get statements or things like that?
Jim: Well, I would say first of all, getting names of witnesses would be first because they’re eventually going to leave the scene. Now you may know some of them, you don’t have to get the names. Others, you don’t know them, go up and say, “Excuse me, can I have your name and phone number or your name and email?” So that later on, if the owner of the dog claims litigation, “Oh, well you provoked my dog. You slapped my dog.” Or something like that. You’ll have evidence to disprove it. The other thing you want to do is take a picture. And now with people carrying cameras that have pictures, you don’t have to worry about carrying a camera with you all the time. I would take pictures of the wound. And I would take pictures of the wound weekly to show it’s gradual healing.
First, it’s going to be real ugly. Then after it gets sutures in it, the sutures look ugly too. So you want to preserve this evidence because you may end up going to court. You may end up settling the case very quickly. Owner acknowledges liability. Maybe their homeowner’s insurance policy covers the loss, but they may dig in their heels and say, “No, we’re going to court. We think you provoked the dog.” Or “We think that you were not really seriously hurt.” It’s just like bruising yourself on a bedpost, getting out of bed. And so the insurance companies or the homeowner himself, you never know how they’re going to react.
John: Right. And so having that documented evidence of the wound right after it happened. And then like you said, maybe a week later and a week later, you don’t know how long this might go before you end up going to court. And by then, it’s possible that the superficial outsides of the wound could have healed. And then the person says, “Oh, they weren’t really injured at all. Look, their arm or their leg looks fine.” But then by showing those pictures, you can say, “Yeah, no, I’ve been going through this for the last two months and here’s the documented evidence of my wounds and how they’ve been healing over time.” That kind of thing.
Jim: I know it’s corny to say, but it is true that a picture’s worth a thousand words. So if you don’t take pictures and a year and a half later, you’re in front of a jury and you stick out your arm and there’s a hairline scar and say, “But wait a minute, you need to know what it looked like the day it happened, the week after. What the sutures looked like.” You might get a skeptical jury or the other side may say, “No, you don’t have any proof of that. Where’s the proof that all of this terrible damage was visible at the time?” So you want to take pictures and it’s unpleasant to bring this up where a child was bitten in the face by a dangerous dog, the history of scarring will be important to document. Unfortunately, some children are permanently scarred. And we can do a lot today with plastic surgery, but there are adults walking around today that still have scars from when they were bitten at four or five years old, especially viciously attacked. Dogs can pull off your ear if for some reason their anger and whatever instinct is aroused.
How Do You Get Compensated for Your Dog Bite Injuries?
John: Right. So talking about that a little bit more and trying to get compensation for my injuries or the injuries that a family member has sustained. How do you go about getting compensated for that? And in some of those cases, like you said, with permanent scarring, how do you even put a dollar value on something like that?
Jim: Right. You hit it on the head. So here are the easy parts. The easy parts are calculating past medicals, and past wage loss. So your doctor bills are how much they are. If a person’s bitten and out of work for a month or three weeks or a week, or whatever, their wage subs are evidence. But under the law, you’re entitled to past and future medical care, past and future wage loss, and past and future pain and suffering. Now future wage loss may be dependent not only on how severe the bite is, but what you do for a living. I know of one case where a surgeon sustained an injury to his hand, which to you and me, we would probably just move on. This guy was a brain surgeon and he couldn’t function after that with one hand significantly disabled in the musculature.
So that’s a huge, massive wage loss if you’re a 30-year-old brain surgeon and you’re done. So future medicals can be projected by the physician who testifies at trial and says, “Look, I treated this person for facial scarring, but he’s going to need three more surgeries to fix the scar. This is how much they’re going to cost.” Future wage loss. Now this again is something that is more subjective than past wage loss. So you may have the employer come in and say, “Look, I need my person to do XYZ on the job. I need them to do it every day, five days a week. And the way he is now, he can’t do it. And his doctor says he’ll be maybe back to normal in three months. So unfortunately I cannot pay him for three months to sit around and do nothing.”
So that’s how you establish future wage loss. And in the example I gave of a doctor, and I can give you other examples. I mean if the dog takes out one of your eyes and you’re a pilot or something, you’re basically cooked for life in terms of the wage loss. Then you hit the most difficult question, pain and suffering. Pain and suffering is totally subjective. There are some jurors, and especially in this era of tort reform where juries have become very cynical about the whole litigation field. Trial lawyers, they feel trial lawyers are con artists and so forth. They don’t believe there should be any damages awarded for pain and suffering. Other jurors are the opposite. They’ve had pain in their life. They know what it feels like to have pain when you wake up, in the middle of the day, when you go to bed, when you wake up at three o’clock in the morning, you’re in pain.
So they might award you a lot of pain and suffering. And pain and suffering also includes scarring. So if you have to walk around for the rest of your life, whereas you’re walking down the street, half the people turn their head and look at you. That is worth a lot of money, period. Or if you’re a person who like an 18-year-old young lady who was successful in beauty pageants, a scar for her maybe worth a lot more money than a scar for somebody like me that… you couldn’t enter me in any pageant; as they say, I’ve got a face perfect for radio. So that’s why, it’s the degree of harm that can be, I guess…make the jury become aware of the damage, the pain, the suffering, how it impacts that person’s life. And that’s very tricky in the jury selection process, which they call “voir dire”.
We’ll ask the jurors, do you have any family members who’ve been in accidents? Have they had scarring? Have they had pain? Have you ever had a chronic pain condition? And then we try to find the jurors who are going to be, just fold their arms and says, “I don’t believe in pain and suffering.” Or they might just hide it to get on the jury. But you find questions that will elicit the truth that they’re not going to give you anything for pain and suffering.
John: Right. You could say to them, “What did you think about it when the woman who got burned by her McDonald’s coffee got $12 million?”, or something like that. And they might say, “Oh, that was so stupid. I can’t believe that that happened.”
Jim: Right. And you’ll get a lot of response. Now when you explain the details of that verdict, and I could if you want to, it really was not an outrageous verdict for a number of reasons.
John: Any final thoughts on dog bites and what people should do after they’re bitten by a dog? What are the main points?
Jim: Well, after you go to the doctor, I would call animal control. Because in most counties or cities, it is a violation sometimes up to a misdemeanor, but at least an infraction to allow a vicious dog to remain loose or be allowed to bite somebody. That person should be ticketed. And if the animal control investigation finds that the dog has a chronic history of attacks, it can impose more severe sanctions. I had one case where the dog owner, this is another case. Interestingly, I was on the other side, although usually I represent the plaintiff, the penalty was that she had to post a banner on the side of her house, about 10 feet wide saying, “Dangerous dog lives here.” And she chose to give that dog away because she didn’t want her house to have that. But there are… And then, I mean if the dog is really, really dangerous, a judge can order their dog put down. It might be another child that doesn’t get bit because of that.
John: Right. Of course. All right. Well, that’s really great information, Jim. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Jim: Happy to talk to you.
John: And for more information, you can visit the website at bendellawfirm.com or call (208) 981-0555.