On February 16, 2009, a 200-pound pet chimpanzee tragically mauled a 55-year old Connecticut woman, leaving her in critical condition with multiple catastrophic injuries. The family of the injured woman is now suing the pet owner for $50 million for negligence and reckless endangerment.
This horrific incident led Connecticut lawmakers to question current pet laws. They proposed a ban on keeping primates, alligators, kangaroos, wolverines and other types of wild and potentially dangerous animals in private homes. Fines and jail time are just two of the consequences you could face.
Owning a pet, particularly a wild animal, makes you responsible for knowing the laws associated with keeping your animal. If your pet attacks, you may be liable to the injured party and risk losing your home or other valuable assets in a lawsuit.
Wild and Exotic Animals
Most pet owners choose dogs or cats as their furry friends. However, there are those animal lovers who prefer a more exotic, and sometimes illegal, companion. Choosing a monkey, alligator, boa constrictor or tiger as a pet increases your liability exposure, and you could be breaking the law, depending on where you live.
In most states, if your wild or exotic animal injures someone, the doctrine of strict liability applies. Strict liability, also referred to as absolute liability, means that you are liable for any losses suffered by the injured person, even if you weren't at fault and careless in any way.
Check your state and local laws to find out whether it's legal to keep the type of animal you want, and if there are any restrictions or registration requirements. Remember, the laws differ among states and localities. You can't assume that your wild or exotic pet is welcome everywhere. You may be able to keep an anaconda in West Virginia, but if you move to New York, your snake won't be welcome!
Wild animals aren't the only pets that can attack and expose the owner to potential liability. The most common household pets in the United States are dogs, cats, birds and fish. Dogs are the most popular companion and the likeliest to cause injury. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, and 1 in 5 require medical attention. The losses from injuries associated with dog bites exceed $1 billion per year.
Generally, if your dog bites someone, you'll be liable if you were unreasonably careless or if you knew your dog had a tendency to bite and did nothing to protect others from being bitten.
In addition, you're responsible if strict liability law is followed in your state. As with wild animals, strict liability means if your dog bites, you will pay, no excuses.
Every Dog Gets One Bite
In a number of states, the one bite rule applies. Under this doctrine, you aren't liable the first time your dog bites. However, once your dog does bite someone, or attempts to bite someone, you're automatically on notice that your dog bites, and you'll be liable if your dog bites again. The rule is designed to deter dog owners from keeping a pet that they know has the propensity to bite.
In general, a homeowner's insurance policy will cover you for dog bite claims. However, many insurance companies are putting provisions in their policies that exclude certain breeds of dogs that are considered inherently dangerous, such as Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers.
A number of state and local governments have passed laws to restrict or ban certain breeds, regardless of a particular dog's behavior. Some laws require owners of dangerous breeds to obtain a certain level of public liability insurance in case their dog attacks someone.
The American Kennel Club (AKC), along with dog owners and animal rights organizations, strongly oppose specific breed legislation as discriminatory, but such legislation has so far been upheld when challenged in court.
If your pet does injure someone, you'll be required to compensate the victim for any damages suffered as a result of the attack. You'll be responsible for the victim's medical bills and lost wages. If your animal tore the victim's clothing, you will have to pay for that as well.
You'll also have to compensate the person for the pain and suffering they endured because of the attack. This includes both physical and mental injuries. If you were grossly negligent, or if you intentionally caused the attack, you may have to pay punitive damages.
Owning a pet not only comes with the responsibility to feed it; you're responsible for maintaining shots and keeping it under control. If your pet injures someone and you're sued, consult a lawyer immediately. If you ignore the complaint, the victim will be entitled to a default judgment. If the injuries are serious, the judgment could be in the millions and you could lose your home, your car and other valuable assets.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I have to worry about whether state or local laws and my homeowner's insurance policy are in agreement when it comes to coverage for pets that might be considered as exotic? Should I make sure there's no conflict?
- Could I face liability issues for a pet that is part wild or exotic?
- Can criminal charges be brought against a person who keeps an exotic pet in violation of the law if the pet hurts someone or causes property damage?
- In personal injury cases involving animals, do juries tend to view some breeds or species as more dangerous than others?