When you suffer injuries from an animal attack through no fault of your own, you may have a negligence claim against the pet owner.
To prove negligence, there must be evidence that the owner had a duty to take reasonable care to control the animal, failed to meet that duty, and their negligence caused the injured victim harm.
When someone keeps a wild animal as a pet, and this pet injures a person, the negligence of the owner or keeper may be presumed because of the dangerous propensities of a wild beast.
The wild animal does not always have to be owned or kept by a person for purposes of an injury claim. Under certain circumstances, a person injured by a wild animal may have a premises liability claim if the property owner was negligent in the attack.
Animals can cause serious physical harm and emotional trauma for victims, who may become scarred, disfigured, or infected from the attack. The vast majority of animal attacks involve dogs, which account for 85 to 90 percent of bites. However, other types of pets can also cause significant wounds or transmit serious infections such as rabies.
When pets attack people because of their owners’ negligence, victims have a potential legal claim against owners for medical expenses, pain and suffering, and other costs. Victims may also have a personal injury claim against a property owner when the animal that attacked them was wild, though negligence claims involving wild animals are often harder to prove than ones involving pets.
Common House Pets That Pose a Threat of Biting
While dogs are the most common type of house pet that bites, many other animals people keep in their homes can be dangerous. For example, approximately 800,000 people in the U.S. seek medical attention each year because of dog bites. But 400,000 people a year are injured by cats, and many cat bites and scratches result in infection because of the harmful germs that cats can carry. These infections range from minor skin infections to serious illnesses.
Though injuries from other kinds of pets are relatively rare, many animals are capable of biting or scratching people, including snakes, turtles, birds, rodents (mice, rats, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters), and spiders. As with cats, bites and scratches from these pets can not only cause wounds but also serious infection and illness.
Though most pet snakes and spiders are not venomous—and you need a special license or permit to own any dangerous species in Georgia—some people do keep dangerous species as pets illegally. Under Georgia law, certain exotic animals, such as monkeys and ferrets, are not allowed to be kept as pets.
Proving Negligence when a Pet Attacks
When you suffer injuries from an animal attack through no fault of your own, you may have a negligence claim against the pet owner. If the animal hurts you because its owner didn’t exercise reasonable care to control it, the owner may be legally responsible for your injury. This rule applies not only to dogs, but cats, snakes, rodents, and other pets that are not considered wild animals (owners of wild animals are held to a different legal standard).
To prove negligence, there must be evidence that the owner had a duty to take reasonable care to control the animal, failed to meet that duty, and their negligence caused the injured victim harm. Whether the owner has a duty depends on the circumstances in each case.
For example, if you were attacked by a dog while in a public area or while you were a guest in the owner’s home, the owner may have had a duty to restrain the animal or protect you from harm. If you were trespassing on the owner’s property, the owner does not owe a duty (though cases involving children are treated differently).
When deciding whether the owner failed to meet their duty, the court also considers whether the owner knew or had reason to know the animal was likely to attack. If the pet had attacked previously—and in Georgia, an “attack” includes biting or other aggressive behavior that causes injury, such as chasing someone—the court may find the owner liable for failing to restrain the animal.
You may be able to prove negligence by showing that the owner knew of the animal’s dangerous propensity and failed to keep it enclosed in their yard, house, or a certain place in the house (e.g., pen, crate, or cage). Even if the owner took steps to keep the animal enclosed in a fenced-in area or enclosure, the owner could still be found negligent if the fence was poorly maintained or they knew the animal could escape.
Why It Matters Whether the Animal Is Owned Versus Wild
In an animal attack injury claim, whether the animal is owned versus wild is an important distinction. Certain pets, such as dogs and cats, are considered domesticated, while others are considered wild by nature, even if bred in captivity. Animals in the wild are generally considered the property of no one, though a person can obtain ownership over a wild animal by capturing or keeping it.
When someone keeps a wild animal as a pet, and this pet injures a person, the negligence of the owner or keeper may be presumed because of the dangerous propensities of a wild beast. Under the law, the owner has a duty to keep a wild animal perfectly secure for the safety of others—a much higher standard than ordinary negligence.
On the other hand, the wild animal does not always have to be owned or kept by a person for purposes of an injury claim. Under certain circumstances, a person injured by a wild animal may have a premises liability claim if the property owner was negligent in the attack.
Generally, property owners have a duty to keep invited guests safe on their premises. If the property owner knew that wild animals were present on their premises and could cause injury, but they failed to address the problem, they may be found liable for damages. For example, if the owner knew there was a bee or hornet’s nest in their backyard and a guest suffered injuries from being stung, the owner may be found liable for not having the nest removed.
However, Georgia premises liability law tends to favor property owners, so it can be challenging to prove that the property owner knew of the risk or owed a duty to the victim (e.g., if the injured party was trespassing or uninvited). Often, wild animals may be simply passing through the owner’s property or there only temporarily, and the victim just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In those situations, it can be difficult or impossible to prove that the owner was negligent.
The Legal Challenge of Proving the Pet Was Owned
When someone is attacked by an animal in the owner’s house, it’s easier to prove the animal was kept as a pet and hold the owner legally responsible. If the animal was merely roaming on the property at the time of the attack, however, it can be difficult to prove ownership. Even in cases involving dogs or cats, owners may try to completely distance themselves from the animal to avoid liability.
To overcome this obstacle, you or your attorney should take steps to establish ownership of the animal as soon as possible after an attack. Establishing ownership may involve collecting evidence from neighbors or witnesses that prove the person provided food, shelter, or veterinary care for the animal. You may need to locate animal control records that show ownership. Local animal shelters may have adoption records that can help.
Insurance Coverage for Animal Attacks
To recover compensation for an animal attack, you will likely need to file a claim with the pet owner or property owner’s insurance company. While homeowner’s insurance doesn’t specifically outline coverage for animal attacks, those kinds of injuries are rolled into personal liability coverage because the owner could be held personally responsible. Personal liability coverage protects the owner whether their pet attacks someone on or off their property.
The insurance company is required to cover a valid claim up to the limit of the liability policy, including the full cost of medical treatment, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other losses. The amount of available coverage may vary, but homeowner’s policies typically provide a limit of between $100,000 and $500,000.
If your costs exceed the limit of the homeowner’s policy, you can seek payment under the owner’s umbrella insurance policy—if they have one. If not, you may need to file a lawsuit against the owner to fully recover your costs.
You may also need to file a lawsuit if the insurance company has excluded liability coverage for the animal because it has a history of biting or aggressive behavior. Keep in mind, however, that Georgia does not allow insurance companies to exclude coverage based on specific dog breeds—only behavior. If the insurance company denies coverage based on breed or other invalid reasons, it may be found liable for acting in bad faith.
When you receive a judgment against the owner, you and your attorney can collect compensation from their personal assets. Note that a homeowner’s insurance coverage is not limited to dogs, cats, or other domesticated pets. Wild animals are also covered if the attack was due to the homeowner’s negligence.
When Animal Attacks Happen on Business Property
If an animal attack happens at a place of business rather than private property, you may have a premises liability claim against the business. Generally, business owners have a legal obligation to invitees to take reasonable steps to ensure their premises is safe.
If the company allows dogs on the property, for example, the court may find that a prudent business owner should have taken steps to prevent an attack, such as requiring leashes or keeping them in carts or crates.
If the attack involves a wild animal, such as hornets, rodents, or snakes, the business owner may be held liable if they didn’t take reasonable steps to remove the danger. For example, if the owner of an apartment complex had received complaints about rodents in the building and failed to remedy the problem, they may be held liable if a tenant is bitten.
The Millar Law Firm Has Extensive Experience Handling Animal Attack Claims
Our firm has handled animal attack cases for over 25 years, so our attorneys know how to overcome challenges in dealing with homeowner’s insurance companies so that you receive maximum compensation for your injuries. With our attorneys working for you, the only thing you need to focus on is your recovery.
If you or a loved one has been injured in an animal attack, call The Millar Law Firm today at (770) 400-0000 or contact us online to set up a free consultation with one of our attorneys.