Once Bitten, Twice Shy
You are at your friend’s house and the fluffy Lhasa Apso named Gizmo greets you at the door. He looks playful enough and seems eager for you to throw his favorite blue ball. You are sitting on the couch and Gizmo just brought the ball back for you to throw. You get up to get a drink from the fridge and Gizmo suddenly changes into a monster, lunges at you, taking a decent chunk of flesh out of your arm. Do you have a case? If so, what are the potential avenues of recovery for the injuries you sustained?
There are typically two types of actions someone injured by dog (or other animal) can pursue against the owner of the dog, owner/renter of the property, and other persons potentially liable for your injuries. The first is a general negligence claim under the common law. For this cause of action, you will first need to establish that the owner of the dog/homeowner owed you a duty. Typically, that will be easy enough in a factual scenario like the one above. As a guest, a homeowner owes you a duty to keep you safe from unreasonable risks of harm. The more difficult element to prove is notice. You need to show that the dog owner/homeowner knew or should have known that Gizmo would attack you. Some refer to the “one bite” rule when referencing the notice element. Essentially, this means that if there was at least one other occasion where Gizmo attacked someone (or acted aggressively toward someone), the owner will be charged with notice of his aggressive nature. If you did something to provoke Gizmo into biting you, that may result in a percentage of fault being placed upon you for your injuries, but won’t necessarily preclude you from bringing forth a claim.
The other typical action is one pursuant to the Illinois Animal Control Act, 510 ILCS 5/1 et seq. This Act states that:
If a dog or other animal, without provocation, attacks, attempts to attack, or injures any person who is peaceably conducting himself in any place where he or she may lawfully be, the owner of such dog or other animal is liable in civil damages to such person for the full amount of the injury proximately caused thereby. 510 ILCS 5/16.
The Act differs from a general negligence claim in that you are not required to show prior notice of Gizmo’s aggression (i.e. other bad acts). The first bite is enough. Furthermore, you don’t even need to show that he bit you. If he ran in between your legs and knocked you down to the ground, that is an “injury” under the Act. For the injured person, you must show you were acting peaceably and that you did nothing to provoke Gizmo into attacking you. Indeed, a case was found in favor of the dog owner where a young child unintentionally stepped on a dog’s tail causing him to bite the child. An “owner” under the Act is not limited to the actual owner of the animal. For example, a dog-sitter and even a minor plaintiff who agreed to care for a dog were considered “owners” for purposes of the Act. This is important because, if you are considered an “owner” as defined by the Act, you cannot recover for injuries caused by the animal you are considered the owner of.
Dog bite cases are amongst the more difficult cases to litigate in Illinois. Ensuring that you find all of the potential defendants and fully investigate the various insurance coverages available can be a painstakingly arduous task. Contact a personal injury attorney experienced in litigating dog bite cases if you are the unfortunate victim of an animal attack. And don’t forget to feed Gizmo after midnight!