June 2017Volume 105Number 6Page 12

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Illinois leads the pack in dog-bite claims

State Farm paid out $14 million for dog-related claims in Illinois in 2016, second only to California. The Illinois Animal Control Act is part of the reason why.

People love their pets. However, sometimes things go wrong. In particular, dogs bite people, causing significant injuries.

In Illinois, and nationwide, dog-bite claims are on the rise. According to the Insurance Information Institute, dog bites and dog-related injuries accounted for more than one third of homeowner insurance liability claim dollars paid out in 2015 (http://bit.ly/21OVQJQ). In Illinois, this is due, in part, to the Animal Control Act (510 ILCS 5/1, et seq.).

In some jurisdictions, there is the "one free bite rule" - a dog owner may not be liable for damages caused by a dog bite if the dog has never bitten a person before. Not so in Illinois. The Act creates heightened liability for dog owners. It provides that if a dog or other animal attacks, attempts to attack, or injures a person without provocation, then the owner is liable for the full amount of any injuries sustained (510 ILCS 5/16.5). This heightened liability is designed to "encourage tight control of animals in order to protect the public from harm." Hayes v. Adams, 2013 IL App (2d) 120681, ¶ 12.

However, "[a]lthough on its face the Act would appear to hold any legal owner of a dog strictly liable for injuries," it does not impose strict liability on the owner. Id. at ¶ 13. A plaintiff must still show "a factual or reasonable basis for liability." Id. For example, if a dog is in the care of another person at the time it bites someone, the owner will most likely not be held liable (though the individual caring for the dog might be).

That said, this heightened liability naturally leads to more dog-bite claims. According to State Farm, it paid out $14 million across 323 dog-related claims in Illinois in 2016 (http://bit.ly/2qweL3l). Illinois ranked second only to California on the company's Top 10 list for dog-bite claims.

Based on those numbers, the average cost of a dog bite in Illinois is $43,343. Some claims end up being much larger. Clifford Law Offices obtained a $940,000 verdict from a DuPage county jury on April 20, 2017. The previous county record was $335,000 (http://bit.ly/2qYcvlr).

The reasonable-dog standard

Not every bite ends in liability for the owner or caregiver. Jane E. McBride, an attorney who sits on the board of Illinois Humane, points out that provocation may be a defense in a dog-bite case. Illinois has adopted a reasonable-dog standard, which "takes into account what a person would 'reasonably expect,' and…also takes into account how a normal dog would react in similar circumstances." Kirkham v. Will, 311 Ill. App. 3d 787, 794 (5th Dist. 2000).

McBride, a member of the ISBA's Animal Law Section Council, says these kinds of cases can get quite elaborate and become a "battle of behavioral experts." She also notes that breed discrimination can be an issue. Many people perceive dogs like pit bulls to be more aggressive than others. In fact, McBride says, the dogs that bite most often are smaller ones like Chihuahuas and Dachshunds. Smaller breeds can be very aggressive and headstrong. If they are not handled properly, they can exhibit behavior problems, she says.

McBride believes that the increase in bite cases is also related to increased dog density in cities and towns. While dog parks and dog beaches are a "lovely concept," they can be a hazard if you don't know how your dog will get along with others.

Damages may vary based on the type of bite, she says. A dog-on-human bite is evaluated like a normal human injury. This means that non-economic damages, such as emotional distress, are also in play. On the other hand, dog-on-dog attacks are generally limited to the actual value of the harm, she says.

This includes the cost of vet bills, which can be high. People try to save their pets, notes McBride. What's more, those damages could include the money spent training a service dog.

The Insurance Information Institute's data show that the average dog bite claim payout has been steadily on the rise. In 2003, the national average was $19,162 (http://bit.ly/21OVQJQ). By 2015, the number had jumped to $37,214. This is an increase of 94.2 percent. For its part, Illinois had 931 dog bite claims in 2015, a 7 percent increase from 2014. Nationally, the number of claims per year stayed relatively flat between 2003 and 2015; the net increase was - 0.8 percent.

No matter what the numbers show, dog owners need to be aware that they may be liable when their dogs bite others. McBride points out that, in addition to the Animal Control Act, various municipalities can have their own laws regarding dogs. It is wise to know the rules where you live.

Matthew Hector
Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Woerthwein & Miller.

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