The Illinois Animal Control Act provides a basis for dog bite victims to recover if they have been the victim of a dog bite. However, an animal attack, on its own, is not necessarily an automatic basis for liability. There are rare situations that may prevent the plaintiff from proving her claim because the plaintiff was actually in control of the animal at the time of the attack, or when a defendant has given proper warnings to the victim about the presence of a dangerous dog. Although rare, these two exceptions to liability are worthy of consideration.
Exception 1: There May Be No Liability When the Victim Assumes Complete Control of the Animal.
In rare situations, a plaintiff may be barred. Van Plew v. Riccio, 317 Ill.App.3d 179 (2nd Dist. 2000). In Van Plew, a pet sitter who the dog owner hired to feed and provide water for the dog was bitten during the course of her care for the dog. The court denied recovery and stated that “where a person voluntarily accepts responsibility for controlling or caring for a dog … that person is an ‘owner’ within the meaning of the Act and is precluded from recovery under the Act.” Id. at 182. The Fourth District of the Illinois Appellate Court reached a similar decision in Docherty v. Sadler, 293 Ill.App.3d 892 (4th Dist. 1997), where it denied relief to a ten-year-old-child who had agreed to take care of a neighbor’s dog. However, these situations are rare and what constitutes “control” is a high bar for the defendant to meet. More often, the defendant will have retained at least partial control of the animal, thereby exposing them to potential liability. A proper investigation can often defeat this defense.
Exception 2: There May Be No Liability When Defendant Places or Gives Sufficient Warnings.
In other instances, a defendant may attempt to defeat liability by relying on posted warnings. In Frostin v. Radick, 78 Ill.App.3d 352, 353 (1st Dist. 1979), the plaintiff was bit by a dog in the defendant’s office. The defendant argued that a finding of liability was not appropriate because the plaintiff “had notice and knowledge of the presence of a guard dog and entered an area prohibited to the public.” Id. The court found that, if true, this constituted a meritorious defense to an animal liability action. However, this factual scenario is uncommon. Illinois courts favor allocating the risk of a dog attack on the owner of the animal, not the victim. This case is often distinguishable on the fact the plaintiff in Frostin was trespassing in an area with a guard dog.
Dog bites are a serious matter and those who suffer injuries as a result of dogs may be prevented from recovering the damages relating to their injuries based either on their own conduct or acquiescence, or by the defendant’s warnings. For an injured person, it is imperative to find an attorney who understands the legal exceptions to liability, however rare, to ensure a meritorious claim exists and can be proved. Someone who has been injured as a result of a dog attack can and should take immediate action in order to protect his or her legal rights. If you or your loved one has been bitten by a dog and sustained injuries, you should immediately contact a knowledgeable attorney.