Articles Posted in Dog Bite

Each day, approximately 1000 Americans visit the emergency room for dog bite injuries. While dogs are still considered to be “man’s best friend,” the fact is that dogs can cause serious harm to humans. Research has shown that certain dog breeds may be more dangerous than others. Some of the most popular dog breeds in Illinois are also among some of the most dangerous. CBS News recently ranked some of the most popular household dog breeds: German Shepherds, Bulldogs, Boxers, Dobermans, Poodles, Rottweilers, Dachshunds, Chihuahuas, Siberian Huskies, Schnauzers, and Great Danes are among the top twenty most popular breeds. In Chicago particularly, German Shepherds and Bulldogs are among the top five most popular household breeds.

These breeds are also among the most dangerous dog breeds, including Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Huskies, Great Danes, Schnauzers, Dachshunds, Chihuahuas, and Bulldogs. A research study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) also lists these same breeds and cross-breed mixes among the most commonly involved in dog bite-related human fatalities. The study points out that children, usually between the ages of 5 and 9 years old, are most often the victims of dog bites, with the majority of dog attacks occurring in the dog owner’s home.
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When filing a dog bite complaint, the plaintiff may pursue multiple theories of liability against the dog owner. The Animal Control Act holds dog owners strictly liable for bites and attacks by their dog. E.g. 510 ILCS 5. Prior to the passage of the Animal Control Act, a plaintiff was forced to bring a negligence cause of action. In such cases, a dog owner could plead an affirmative defense that he or she lacked knowledge that the dog would attack or bite–commonly referred to as the “one-bite” or “scienter” rule. Klatz v. Pfeffer, 333 Ill. 90, 94-95 (1928).

The Illinois legislatures adopted the “dog bite” statute, which eliminated the scienter rule. The modern “dog bite” statute states, in part: “If a dog or other animal without provocation attacks or injures any person who is peaceably conducting himself . . . the owner of such dog or other animal is liable in damages to such person for the full amount of the injury sustained.” 510 ILCS 5/16. The Illinois Supreme Court in Beckert v. Risberg held that the elements necessary to sustain an action under this section are: (1) proof of injury by the dog; (2) lack of provocation; (3) peaceable conduct; and (4) presence of the plaintiff in a place where he or she had a right to be. 33 Ill. 2d 44, 46 (1965); See https://www.chicago-injury-lawyer.org/dog-bite/. Accordingly, a dog owner may only defend an action under the statute by proving that the victim was creating a disturbance, trespassing, or tormenting the dog in a way that provoked the attack.
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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.
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Under the Illinois Animal Control Act, a plaintiff seeking to recover injuries from the result of a dog bite must prove: “(1) an attack by defendant’s dog; (2) injury to plaintiff; (3) absence of provocation; and (4) that plaintiff was conducting himself peaceable in a place where he had a legal right to be.” Stehl v. Dose, 83 Ill.App.3d 440, 443 (3rd Dist. 1980). The third element of this burden, absence of provocation, can be a complex area of the law. In Nelson, provocation was initially defined as “an act or process of provoking, stimulation or incitement.” Nelson v. Lewis, 36 Ill.App.3d 130, 131 (5th Dist. 1976).

Since the Nelson decision, subsequent Illinois Appellate Court decisions have provided some as to what actions constitutes provocation. For example, the court in Stehl v. Dose also stated that a determination of provocation is “primarily a question of whether plaintiff’s actions would be provocative to the dog.” Stehl at 443. In addition, this standard takes into account both “what a person would reasonably expect, and how a normal dog would react in similar circumstances.” Kirkham v. Will, 311 Ill.App.3d 787, 794 (5th Dist. 2000). An unintentional or accidental act can sometimes create provocation, however “where the acts which stimulated or excited the dogs were unintentional … no provocation can be said to exist within the meaning of the statute if the acts cause the dog to attack the plaintiff viciously, and the vicious act is out of proportion to the unintentional acts involved.” Wade v. Rich, 249 Ill.App.3d 581, 589 (5th Dist. 1993).
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Dog bites and animal attacks are more common than most people think. Often, the disfiguring injuries that result are never reported to animal control officials. Every year in the U.S., there are nearly 4.7 million dog bites, 800,000 of the attacks require medical attention. To compensate for the harm caused by dog bites, the insurance industry pays over $1 billion in claims each year.

Illinois has enacted laws designed to protect the rights of those who have suffered an injury due to an animal attack. Previously, under the common law, a person injured by a dog could recover only by proving that the dog had previously manifested a disposition to bite or cause harm, and that the owners of the dog were aware of the dog’s harmful disposition. This was known as the “one bite rule.” Although the rules set forth under the common law still exist, the Illinois Animal Control Act now provides an easier remedy for dog bite victims. Under the Animal Control Act, dog bite victims no longer need to prove that the dog owner had prior knowledge of the animal’s vicious nature. The Act makes it easier to plead and prove a dog bite injury case.
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