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When Should I Sue Someone for a Dog Bite?

What the law says in Alabama

When proper safety precautions are not taken, dogs have the potential to be dangerous. According to data cited by the Canine Journal, approximately 800,000 people seek professional medical care for dog bite injuries each year. In Alabama, a dog owner may be legally liable for injuries caused by their animal.

“It is different than a lot of other areas of law,” says William Messervy, an injury attorney at Siniard, Timberlake & League in Huntsville, “and it's the law is pretty specific to Alabama.”

Alabama Dog Bite Laws: Multiple Theories of Liability

Following an attack by a dog, injured victims need immediate medical attention. Dog bites have the potential to become infected without proper care. From there, your family should pursue compensation against the responsible party. Alabama’s dog bite laws are notoriously complex. There are multiple theories of liability under which you could file a dog bite injury lawsuit against the animal’s owner. How exactly you should pursue a claim depends on the specific circumstances of the case.

In Alabama, dog bite victims also have the right to pursue a negligence claim under the state’s common law. This type of claim is also sometimes referred to as a ‘one-bite-rule’ claim.

“Common law negligence boils down to: They have to have knowledge and notice of the dog's propensity to endanger the safety of others. Essentially, if the dog has bitten somebody before, then the owner is on notice,” Messervy says.

You can hold a dog owner legally liable for injuries through a common law negligence claim if that dog owner knew or should have known that their animal was dangerous. If the dog previously bit or displayed extreme aggression against another person, that is good cause to pursue a negligence claim. In these, an injured victim can pursue financial compensation for the full extent of their losses, including pain and suffering. 

Additionally, Alabama has labeled some dogs as inherently dangerous—such as pit bulls—and the owner is expected to have already been on notice. “But you can also look at veterinarian records for the dog during discovery,” Messervy says. “I had a case with a German shepherd where they gave it doggy Xanax every time they came in, just to calm him down. A lot of people also have dogs professionally trained since there were puppies to be guard dogs. All those things can satisfy that notice requirement to the owners that the dog could have dangerous propensity.”

Under Alabama law, a dog owner is strictly liable for injuries caused by their animal that occur on property that they owned or controlled. Additionally, the dog owner can also be held liable under this statute if their animal gets loose and injures someone in the immediate vicinity of their property. However, there are some caveats to this statute. First, a dog bite victim can only pursue financial compensation for actual economic damages through this type of claim. Further, a dog bite victim will be denied compensation under the statute if they were trespassing at the time of the attack or if they provoked the dog.

Negligence can also be attributed when an owner violates a city or county statute, Messervy adds. “Most cities have leash laws, so if the dog was off-leash when it bit someone, it's evidence of negligence,” he says. “I've had a case where the dog escaped the fence and attacked a lady's dog. She was injured in trying to separate them. We were able to connect it to their failure to properly restrain their dog and keep it from escaping.”

Filing a Lawsuit

While these lawsuits are filed against owners, it may be easier to think of them as being against their homeowner’s or renter’s insurance—especially in the all-too-common cases in which a friend or family member is involved, Messervy says. To hold a dog owner (or other property owner) legally liable for injuries caused by an animal, you should be prepared to present a strong case, because the insurance company will be prepared to do the same.

“I think these are important cases hire lawyers on. I know that's probably rich coming from a lawyer, but they are so fact-specific, and you want to tailor the narrative from the very beginning,” Messervy says. “It’s especially true when you're trying to prove disfigurement, which is not something that insurance companies like paying for because it's not a medical bill.”

Experienced Alabama animal bite attorneys commonly takes these cases on contingency, meaning they only get paid if you win or settle the case. In that event, they commonly take one-third of the reward, or 40% if it goes to trial, which is rare.

For more information on this area, see our animal bites law overview.

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