Just a few months ago, a dog trainer came to the Hillsborough County Courthouse to oppose an ordinance that required dog trainers to obtain a license. The dog trainer brought a dog with him. There was a crowd of people in the courthouse lobby, including the dog and his trainer, waiting to get into the hearing room where the ordinance was to be discussed. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the dog lunged at a five-year-old boy, biting the boy’s face. Witnesses recounted that the boy did not do anything to provoke the horrifying dog bite.
The dog attack in that case not only underscored the need for the very law being discussed at the courthouse, but it also underscored a larger point: Dogs can be unpredictable even if they never exhibited a propensity towards violence before.
Dog Bites In Florida, and Throughout The U.S., Are A Bigger Problem Than You May Think
Dog bites account for millions of dollars in insurance claims annually. Some experts estimate that dogs bite more than 4.7 million people in the United States every year, and almost 1 million of those dog bite victims require some emergency medical treatment. Florida in 2014 recorded the highest average payout per dog bite in the country up to that point, with 146 payments totaling approximately $5.6 million.
Dog bites can result in severe injuries that require not only medical attention and corrective surgery, but also may lead to lost time at work and lost wages. That is why people who suffer a dog bite should get an experienced attorney to assist them in obtaining compensation for their injuries.
In fact, Florida law has a specific dog-bite statute that holds dog owners strictly liable for injuries that their dog causes. Here is a short primer on the evolution of Florida’s dog-bite law.
The Precursor to Florida’s Dog-Bite Law – The “One Free Bite” Rule
For over two centuries, from English common law to the present, the general rule followed by courts has been, and in most jurisdictions still is, the “one free bite” rule. The “one free bite” rule means that the first time a dog bites someone, the dog’s owner cannot be held liable for any injuries that resulted. The premise of the rule comes from the notion that dog owners are not be able to predict that a dog will attack someone if they never saw their dog display aggression in the past.
The only way a victim can recover under the “one free bite” rule is to prove that the dog owner knew that the dog had a propensity for violence. If such proof is presented, dog owners typically raise the defense that the victim provoked the dog, or that the victim trespassed on the dog owner’s property unlawfully.
The obvious downside to the “one free bite” rule is that dog owners often avoid having to take any responsibility, financial or otherwise, for a victim’s injuries. Indeed, a Georgia state appellate court in the recent case of Clark v. Joiner followed the common law “one free bite” rule, finding that a dog owner had no liability for an injury caused by his dog. However, a concurring judge commented that the common law rule should no longer be favored, noting that “[a] dog should have no greater right to a first bite than one has to a first murder.”
Florida’s Dog-Bite Statute – Strict Liability for Dog Owners
The same sentiment recently articulated by the concurring judge in Clark v. Joiner was certainly on the minds of the Florida Legislature back in 1949. That year, the Florida Legislature’s dissatisfaction with the “one free bite” rule led to the enactment of Florida Statute 767. Specifically, section 767.04 provides, in relevant part:
The owner of any dog that bites any person while such person is on or in a public place, or lawfully on or in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, is liable for damages suffered by persons bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owners’ knowledge of such viciousness. However, any negligence on the part of the person bitten that is a proximate cause of the biting incident reduces the liability of the owner of the dog by the percentage that the bitten person’s negligence contributed to the biting incident.
Simply put, Florida’s dog-bite statute expressly replaces the old “one free bite” rule, and states that a dog owner is strictly liable for any injury caused by his or her dog. Strict liability exists whether or not the owner was aware of the dog’s propensity for violence.
The statute does allow for some reduction in a dog owner’s liability if the victim was negligent, as the quoted portion above states. In addition, the statute provides that a dog owner will not be held strictly liable if the owner prominently displays a sign with the words “Bad Dog” on it.
The Florida Dog-Bite Statute Also Allows For Additional Remedies
What is also interesting about Florida’s dog-bite statute is that it still allows for other legal remedies. Specifically, section 767.04 states that “[t]he remedy provided by this section is in addition to and cumulative with any other remedy provided by statute or common law.”
That sentence in the statute means that a victim may sue for damages under the statute, and may also sue under other legal theories. Those legal theories include Negligence (asserting that the dog owner is liable for acting carelessly or recklessly with regard to the incident); Negligence per se (for example, where an owner is negligent for failing to put a leash on a dog in violation of existing laws); and Intentional Tort (whereby the dog owner did something purposely that led to the dog hurting the victim).
If you have sustained a dog bite injury in Florida, contact The Law Offices of Thomas J. Lavin right away. As discussed above, the dog-bite law in Florida is rather involved and provides many opportunities to receive compensation. Let a knowledgeable attorney review your case to see if you can help offset the costs of a dog-bite injury.