Accident in a Public Place: Dog Bite Claims*

Dog ownership in Ireland has risen steadily in the last decade. In 2018, an estimated 34% of Irish households owned a dog, with many households having more than one dog. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the number of dog-biting claims has also risen, despite the apparent tightening of dog-control measures.

A scientific paper published in 2015 analysed the number of dog bites requiring hospitalisation in Ireland between 1998 and 2013. It revealed the number of bites had risen from 4.65 to 5.64 per 100,000 people, representing an increase of more than 20 percent. These figures do not include the many dog bites not severe enough to warrant a hospital visit.

Current statistics also suggest that children are three to five times more likely than adults to be the victims of dog-bite attacks. Indeed, their physical inability to fend off an attacking dog makes children far more likely to suffer severe or even fatal injuries in a dog attack.

Legislation in Ireland

Under the Control of Dogs Act 1986, the owner of a dog is liable to pay compensation for any damage caused by the dog attacking and injuring a person or livestock. This is a strict liability offence, meaning it is not necessary to prove negligence. All that needs to be proven is that the dog attack happened and that an injury occurred. It is important to be able to establish the identity of the dog and its owner.

Under the 1986 Act, the owner of a dog aged more than four months must have a dog licence. The dog must be under the owner’s effective control, or the control of another responsible person, if it is outside the owner’s home or premises, or the home or premises of the person in charge of it.

Additional rules apply in Ireland for ten breeds of dogs (or strains and crosses of them) that are deemed “dangerous,” including Bull Mastiffs, Dobermans, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and various breeds of bull terriers. These dogs must:

  • Be kept on a short, strong lead by a person over 16 years who can control them
  • Be muzzled whenever they are in a public place
  • Always wear a collar bearing the name and address of their owner

Differing Approaches

These breed-linked regulations have been criticised as ineffective for preventing dog-bite incidents. Some feel they may give dog owners the false impression that all other dog breeds are safe, thus reducing an owner’s vigilance. Indeed, many other countries, including the Netherlands and Scotland, adopt an approach of “deed not breed” assessment, which means any dog with a track record of causing problems is placed under tighter controls, with owners possibly required to attend training classes.

This alternative approach is argued as being a more logical and effective approach than focusing on breeds that are perceived to be more dangerous than others. A recent Irish Veterinary Journal study found “no significant difference” between the level of medical treatment required from a dog bite from a “dangerous dog” breed and one from another breed.

Insurance Cover for Dog Attacks

Some insurers offer specific pet insurance. Many household insurance policies also cover bite injury claims caused by a pet dog. Insurance cover may vary for attacks by “dangerous” dog breeds, with some insurers refusing cover completely, and others covering the dogs if the owner meets required regulations, such as muzzling them in public. In the absence of home insurance, it may be necessary to pursue the dog owner personally, which may raise difficulties in recovering an award of compensation for injuries suffered.

Given the severe injuries that can occur in dog-bite attacks, which often produce permanent scarring and associated psychological injuries, the cost of such claims can be significant. In addition to the harm caused, an injured party may suffer consequential financial losses, such as medical bills and loss of earnings.

Case Law Examples

In March 2017, the High Court awarded a postman €103,000 following an attack by a dog in which the postman suffered permanent scars to his legs and post-traumatic stress disorder. The judge said that, although the injuries were not catastrophic, they were significant and warranted significant compensation.

When injuries occur to a child, any compensation award needs to be approved by a judge. In March 2020, a High Court judge approved a settlement offer of €75,000 to a boy who was aged 10 when he suffered permanent scarring to his face in a dog attack while playing with friends near his home. In December 2019, the High Court approved a €78,000 award to a girl who suffered permanent scarring injuries to her face when she was attacked by her uncle’s dog at the age of four.

Conclusion

The 2015 study mentioned at the start of this article also revealed that more than 70 percent of households considered their pet dog to be part of their family. Many pet dogs spend far more time indoors than dogs did in the past, which means parents are more trusting of pet dogs around children than ever before. The identification and regulation of dangerous breeds may be helpful, but ongoing efforts should be made to educate dog owners, particularly parents, about the risks of owning pet dogs and how to detect aggressive tendencies in a dog. It is equally important to educate children about these risks to prevent the occurrence of dog attacks.

 

*In contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage or proportion of any award or settlement

Ed Kelly, Solicitor
Ed Kelly, Solicitor
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