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Dog Bites

According to Dogsbite.org, there were 38 fatalities in the Unites States from dog bites in 2012. Pit bulls contributed to 61% of these deaths, even though they make up only 5% of the total dog population in the United States. Rottweilers and pit bulls together account for 73% of all fatal dog attacks from 2005 to 2012.

Of the victims of dog bites in 2012, half were adults and the other half were children aged eight and under. Males are more frequently the victims of dog bites than females. Most people are bit by dogs they are either visiting or living with. Every year, more than 500 Floridians are bitten severely enough by dogs to require hospitalization, and on average two Florida residents die every year from dog bite injuries.

The Evolution from the Common Law Rule to Strict Liability

The so-called one bite rule was created hundreds of years ago by British courts, on the theory that an individual should be legally responsible for any damage caused by his or her dog. Liability was premised on the theory that the dog owner had knowledge that the animal in question was dangerous. To recover, an injured party had to prove that the defendant owned the dog, the dog was dangerous, the owner knew the dog was dangerous because the dog had previously bitten someone else under similar circumstances, and the current bite caused injuries to the victim. The owner could raise as an affirmative defense the argument that the plaintiff provoked the dog or was trespassing.

Because of the difficulties in proving an owner knew the dog was dangerous, dog bite claims under this standard were very hard to prove. The English rule proved to be problematic, as the victim of an animal’s first attack had no legal recourse, and dog owners were not properly incentivized to ensure their dog behaved properly.

Florida’s Modern Dog Bite Statute

Unhappiness with the British law led to the enactment of F.S. §767.04, the dog bite provision, in 1949. The so-called dog bite statute imposes strict liability on dog owners, removing the requirement that owners have knowledge of the viciousness of the dog. The original law still allowed the dog-owner to avoid liability if the person bitten provoked the dog, or if the words “Bad Dog” were prominently displayed on the premises.  The law was revised in three significant ways in 1993. First, the legislature removed the affirmative defense of provocation. Second, a comparative negligence provision was inserted, so even though the statute provides for strict liability, comparative fault will still reduce the overall liability of the owner by an equal percentage. As noted by the court in Huie v. Wipperfurth the defense of provocation was essentially replaced with a comparative negligence standard.

The statute imposes strict liability on the owner of a dog who bites another person who is in a public place, or legally in a private place. The statute only applies to injuries caused by dog bites. If you are injured by a dog in another way, you can still prove the owner is liable under traditional theories of negligence. So, for example, if a dog who is not on a leash knocks you down and you sustain injuries, you can sue the owner in a negligence action. Strict liability, however, is only for dog bites.

Homeowners’ Insurance

Many homeowners’ insurance policies offer coverage for dog bites. It is important, therefore, if you are bitten by a dog, to request a copy of the dog owner’s homeowners policy, so the coverage under the policy can be reviewed and coverage can be sought. According to Florida case law, every separate dog bite which results in a separate injury to a separate victim is a unique occurrence, whether the policy language so indicates or not. Dog bites are specifically excluded from coverage under some insurance policies have specific exclusion for injuries caused by dogs. In American Strategic Ins. Co. v. Lucas-Solomon, 927 So. 2d 184 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006), for example, the court upheld an exclusion. The court upheld the exclusion for dog bite injuries in the policy.

Statute of Limitations

Florida has a four year statute of limitations on claims brought by an injured person after a dog bite injury. Missing the four year deadline will result in waiving your right to legal action, so any lawsuit must be filed within the four year period to preserve your rights.

Defenses to Orlando Dog Bite Claims

There are two defenses available to a Florida dog owner in response to a dog bite claim: the owner can allege that the plaintiff was trespassing, and can raise comparative fault. Florida’s dog bite law only provides coverage to those injured persons who were lawfully in the place where the bite occurred. Therefore, a person who is trespassing on private property is not lawfully present, and cannot recover damages under the statute.

Comparative fault is the second defense, although it is not a complete defense. It can offset any liability, however, by reducing the damage award by the same percentage amount as the defendant’s share of fault for the bite. An example of this is if, while visiting a friend’s house for dinner, you accidentally step on their dog’s paw. The dog responds by biting you. The jury decides that you bear 30% of the responsibility for the bite, since you stepped on his paw, so if they find your damages to be $50,000, you will only be able to collect $35,000.

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