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Dog Bites: When Can You Seek Punitive Damages Against Dog Owners?

by | Dec 11, 2019 | Dog Bites | 0 comments


San Francisco and Oakland residents love their dogs. Both cities have dog-friendly parks, cafes and other spots for dogs to roam. When one of those dogs bites, and you can prove that dog has a history of bad behavior, you may be able to collect punitive damages.

What are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages (also called exemplary damages) are intended to punish the defendant. The judge/jury awards punitive damages when the defendant’s behavior is especially reckless.


In a dog bite/attack case, the judge/jury may award punitive damages in the following situations:


• The owner specifically trained the dog to attack people.

• The owner knew the dog was aggressive and took it out around people anyway.

• The dog bit or attacked someone in the past.


Who Pays Punitive Damages?

The defendant dog owner pays punitive damages. The insurance company is not allowed to pay damages for such egregious behavior. On the other hand, the insurer’s first obligation is to protect its insured (the defendant) and get them out of the lawsuit if possible.


When a defendant faces punitive damages, the insurer often overpays other damages to make the case go away without a specific finding of punitive damages. If the defendant has enough money in the bank, the plaintiff can still seek to have the defendant contribute to the settlement in addition to what the insurance company pays.


What Does Insurance Cover?

Many homeowner’s insurance policies cover dog bite liability for dogs owned by the homeowner. Insurance will cover economic damages, such as medical bills and lost earnings. In dog bite cases often we will also have future medical expenses for plastic surgery to lessen the scarring. The insurer also is responsible for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering.


If you have homeowner’s insurance, check your policy and/or ask your agent to explain the dog bite coverage to you. Some policies will exclude from coverage certain vicious breeds.


If you don’t have homeowner’s insurance, you have to pay everything out of your own pocket: medical expenses, pain and suffering and punitive damages.


Lessons Learned

In a recent case, the owner of a known-vicious dog had the dog out with him in his yard. The yard didn’t have a fence and the dog wasn’t on a leash. When my client walked by on a public sidewalk, the dog attacked. The dog’s bites caused her serious injuries. Because the dog was known to be vicious, we have requested in court filings that my client be awarded punitive damages.


Dog Bite 411

• If a dog bites and/or attacks you, get medical attention right away. Dog bites can easily get infected.


• You have two years from the date of the attack to file a lawsuit against a dog owner.


• If the bite took place on federal land in San Francisco, you may not be able to file a criminal case. According to an article in San Francisco Examiner, you can still file a civil claim against the dog owner, but you can’t turn the dogs over to San Francisco Police Department’s vicious and dangerous dog unit.


Dog bites can cause deep, lasting wounds and the lawsuits can get complicated. If you’ve suffered a serious dog attack, call my office as soon as you’re able for a free consultation.