In a 19 year period from 1979 through 1998, the federal Center for Disease Control, reports that more than 300 Americans died from dog bite attacks. Giving an idea of the scope of the danger – an astounding 800,000 Americans sought medical care because of dog bites in a single reported year. Most dog attacks involved a lone dog, and not surprisingly, while any breed of dog can bite, pit-bulls, pit-bull type breeds, and rottweilers were responsible for more than 50% of the fatal dog attacks. Children under the age of 15 are at greater risk than adults, with the youngest children being at the greatest risk of death or severe harm should a dog attack. Children may not know how to approach a dog, how to back off from a threatening dog, and how to avoid actions that a dog may perceive as threatening or challenging.
Massachusetts has a strict liability dog bite law that affords a high degree of deference in the tort system, to victims of dog bites. Strict liability in the context of the dog bite statute, means that if you are bitten by a dog, the owner or keeper is liable to you for your injuries, whether or not the owner was negligent, and whether or not the dog had dangerous propensities that the owner knew or should have known about. In other words, the owner is as liable for an attack by a previously docile cocker spaniel, as he would be for an attack by a vicious pit-bull. The dog owner can defeat liability only by showing that the bitten person was either trespassing or committing another tort, or teasing, tormenting, or abusing the dog. If the dog bites a child under 7 years of age, it is presumed that the child was not trespassing or bothering the dog, and the dog owner must prove affirmatively that the child was doing so.
Since there is no need to prove negligence in a dog bite case in Massachusetts, the strength of the case boils down to four elements: (1) can ownership or control of the dog be proven; (2) will the plaintiff be able to defeat any attempt by the dog owner to claim the plaintiff was trespassing or teasing or abusing the dog; (3) what are the damages; and (4) as a pragmatic matter – is the dog owner either a property owner with significant assets or insured by a homeowners or other policy that covers him for dog bites. If all of those elements are in place, dog bite cases are worth pursuing. A dog attack can be terrifying and cause long-lasting psychological as well as physical trauma, especially to a young child. Emotional suffering, in addition to physical injury, is an element of damages in a dog bite case.