Everybody has heard of someone who has been bitten by a dog. This is no accusation directed at dogs as owner irresponsibility is often the main cause of the attack. Correctly, one must then look at the liability of the owner to determine whether the actions of the dog are attributable to the owner or not.
Where a person is bitten and injured by a dog the injured person can institute action against the owner of the dog to recover his/her damages suffered. The main advantage for the injured person is that if the requirements discussed below are met, the injured person need not prove any guilt on the part of the owner of the dog. Thus, irrespective of whether the owner of the dog was negligent or not, the owner can still be held liable for the damage caused by his animal.
What must be proven for a successful claim?
In order to succeed with a claim for damages, the injured person must show that:
- The person being sued is the owner of the relevant animal at the time of the incident. The mere fact that a person is in control of an animal is not sufficient.
- The animal is a domesticated animal, which by implication excludes wild animals.
- Damage was caused by the actions of the animal acting contrary to the nature of its kind. The animal must have acted differently to what could be expected of a proper and well-mannered animal of its kind. A dog that bites, in general acts contrary to the nature of its kind. Where the animal does not acted spontaneously but acts due to incitement or other external factors such as a dog that is being teased etc., the animal does not act contrary to its nature when it reacts aggressively.
- The injured person must have a right to be present at the place where the damage was caused. Where a person enters the property of another without invitation, the person will not be able to succeed with this action because the injured person was unlawfully present on the property.
Defences available to the owner of the dog
Although guilt on the side of the owner is not a pre-requisite, a number of defences are available to the owner of the animal in the case of a claim for damages. These defences available to the owner include the following:
- Guilty conduct on the part of the injured person. For example, where the injured person provoked the animal by hitting, throwing objects at or teasing the animal.
- Causing of damage by a guilty third party. For example, where another person provokes the dog or hurts or teases the animal with the result that the injured person is attacked.
- Provocation by another animal. For example, where another dog attacks the owner’s dog and the owner’s dog in the attack bites the injured person.
- Consent to prejudice. Where the injured person expressly or tacitly through his/her conduct consents to prejudice. For example, where a person is bitten by a dog but was pre-warned against the dog and then indicates that he/she is not afraid of dogs – “the dog won’t bite me” – a court should find that the injured person tacitly consented to the prejudice and would the person not able to claim damages from the owner.
What damages can be claimed?
Where a dog bites a person, the person usually suffers damage and the person can claim for a wide range of damages, including for pain and suffering, loss of life enjoyment, disfiguration or disability, medical expenses incurred and to be incurred in future, loss of income etc. All of these damages are in principle recoverable from the owner of the dog.
Even a person that witnesses the attack on another, may as a result of the emotional trauma suffered (and upon proving damage), hold the owner of the dog liable for the damage suffered.
Accordingly, it is very important for owners of dogs to take note of their potential liabilty for the actions of their animals. This liability may be extensive and owners are encouraged to be serious about the proper control of their animals. That said, there are defence available to the owner of a dog and owners are encouraged to obtain legal advice in circumstances where an incident has occurred.