Spot is the cutest pup in Chatfield State Park Dog Park, as usual, but the rough looking pit bull with a scar across its eye seems to take offense to being upstaged. The pit bull starts growling and lunges at Spot. You intercede and save your furry friend, but not before the vicious beast takes a bite at your arm. The owner is apologetic, but apologies aren't going to pay the medical bills; you need to initiate a personal injury lawsuit. Dog bite lawsuits are confusing for the layman, so FindLaw has created this general outline to give you an idea of what's ahead in a typical Denver dog bite lawsuit.
Dog Bite Statute
The Colorado dog bite statute, found in Colorado Statutes section 13-21-124, imposes strict liability on dog owners for any injury caused by that dog. Strict liability means that the plaintiff does not need to prove that the owner knew that his or her dog had vicious propensities, as required by the common law action detailed below, so an action under this statute is generally easier to prove.
However, this type of lawsuit has some limitations. First, the statute only applies to dog owners, not handlers or keepers of the animal, such as a dog walker. Second, the statute applies only to a "serious bodily injury," which is defined as a "bodily injury which involves a substantial risk of death, a substantial risk of serious permanent disfigurement, a substantial risk of protracted loss or impairment of the function of any part or organ of the body, or breaks, fractures, or burns of the second or third degree." Emotional distress, for example, would not be covered under the statute if it does not result from actual physical injury.
Finally, a plaintiff's recovery under the dog bite statute is limited to economic damages; the statute does not provide for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, emotional anguish, or inconvenience. If the plaintiff wishes to recover non-economic damages, they must rely on common law actions instead.
Another interesting aspect of the statute is its use of the "one bite rule," which is covered in more detail below. While Denver dogs don't get one free bite under the strict liability statute, if the victim can prove that the dog's owner knew of the dog's vicious propensities, he or she can make a motion for the court to order the vicious dog to be euthanized.
Defenses to the Dog Bite Statute
The plaintiff will be prevented from recovering under the dog bite statute if he or she was trespassing, provoking the dog, or ignored a "beware of dog" or "no trespassers" warning sign. Furthermore, individuals who work in a dog-related industry cannot recover under this statute, as it is their job to encounter this type of risk. This includes veterinarians, dog groomers, professional dog handlers, and judges at a dog show. Finally, work dogs are often exempt under this statute, such as a military or police dog, or a dog that was working as a hunting, herding, farming, ranching, or predator control dog.
The One Bite Rule
If you are barred from bringing an action under the dog bite statute, or wish to recover non-economic damages, the one bite rule will likely play a key role. Under this common law doctrine, a dog owner or handler is not liable for injuries caused by their dog unless he or she was aware that the dog had dangerous or vicious propensities. Thus, the plaintiff must prove that (a) the dog previously bit someone, and (b) the defendant was aware of the dog's previous conduct. This is obviously harder to prove that the strict liability statute due to the difficulty in proving the defendant's knowledge.
Like the dog bite statute, individuals who trespass to encounter a vicious dog, or otherwise assume the risk of the encounter (for example by provoking it), cannot recover.
Negligence Per Se
The law of negligence requires that individuals exercise reasonable care to avoid accidentally injuring another. A reasonable person does not break laws, so if a plaintiff can show that the defendant violated a law, and this violation caused the plaintiff's injuries, the plaintiff has shown that the defendant was negligent per se.
The negligence per se doctrine may come into play in dog bite cases when a defendant fails to abide by animal control laws. For example, a Denver city ordinance requires dog owners or handlers to keep the dog on a leash and under control at all times (except when confined on the dog owner's premise or in designated off-leash dog parks). Furthermore, Colorado law makes it illegal for anyone to simply own a dangerous dog. If the plaintiff can prove that the dog was dangerous, he or she could succeed in a negligence action by simply pointing out that the defendant's dog fits within the statutory definition of dangerous (with or without the defendant's knowledge).
Denver landlords may be liable for bites caused by their tenants' dogs in specific circumstances. This action in available under the Colorado premises liability statute, C.R.S. section 13-21-115. Colorado courts have found that a landlord may be liable for a tenant's dog's attack only if the landlord actually knew, prior to entering into the lease, of the danger presented by the dog.
Statute of Limitations
Denver plaintiffs have two years to initiate their lawsuit under the Colorado statute of limitations (C.R.S. section 13-80-102(a)). If a plaintiff does not file his or her lawsuit within two years of the injury causing incident, he or she will be forever prevented from recovering damages.
If you have more questions about dog bite law, or your responsibilities as a pet owner, contact the Denver Animal Shelter. If you dog is lost, or possibly was picked up for roaming unattended, check out their pet finder page. FindLaw also offers general information on dog bite laws and more.
Contact a qualified attorney.