Verdicts & Settlements
Dog is man’s unquestioned best friend. There is one dog for almost every four humans in the United States, with almost 13 million of them in Illinois alone. The tragic reality of all of these canines is that each year they bite humans almost five million times across the country. Of course, certain breeds are responsible for the majority of these injuries more than others, including the following: pit bulls, rottweilers, mastiffs, sharpeis, and boxers. Here are some startling statistics on the damage that these animals have inflicted:
- 8 in 10 attacks result in bodily harm.
- 8 in 10 attacks result in maiming.
- 7 in 10 attacks result in fatalities.
- 9 in 10 attacks involved adults.
- 8 in 10 attacks involved children.
After painting the landscape with this many animals and alluding to their dangerous propensities at times, it is understandable why so many of these incidents often turn into legal proceedings. In fact, victims often transform into plaintiffs to redress these wrongs, recover medical expenses, loss of work, loss of support, wrongful death, and a whole host of other damages. Traditionally, they could file suit under common law but now they can also find relief under the Illinois Animal Control Act. It is very important to realize that the latter did not nullify the former. If plaintiffs cannot prove all necessary requirements under the Act they can still try common law claims.
Under the common law, Illinois had a “one-bite rule” where an owner basically was given a free pass for the first attack but was liable thereafter. The rationale was that owners should be legally responsible for the vicious of their animals up and until they have reason to know of their dangerous proclivities. The focus switched after adoption of the Illinois Animal Control Act from redressing legal injuries to preventing them in the first place. Wilcoxen v Paige, 174 Ill App 3d 541, 528 (3d D 1988). Therefore, it strategically required four parts to any dog bite claim: an animal owned by the defendant injures a victim, no provocation, peaceful action by the victim, and that the victims were where they could legally be.
The Act adds several wrinkles to these four prima facie parts which necessitate some discussion. First of all, injury does not require an actual dog bite. In 510 ILCS 5/2. 18a., the Act allows for recovery for any “impairment of physical condition.” Second, it employs a very broad definition of ownership for purposes of liability. The statute defines ownership as “any person having a right of property in an animal, or who keeps or harbors an animal, or who has it in his care, or acts as its custodian, or who knowingly permits a dog to remain on any premises occupied by him or her.” 510 ILCS 5/2.16. This is most often referred to as the three C’s, including:
This expansive meaning has had consequences including bringing children into the scope of ownership (Docherty v Sadler, 293 Ill App 3d 892, 894 (4th D 1997)) as well as stray dogs into the scope of animals owned by defendants (Thompson v. Dawson 136 Ill App 3d 695, 696 (4th D 1985)). In terms of provocation, Illinois courts measure its existence from the dog’s perspective, but also demand it respond reasonably and proportionally. Finally, recovery is almost uniformly barred to trespassers. Hopefully, this gives some contextual understanding to the framework that lawsuits surrounding dog bites and attacks must take place within. Now, an overview of litigation, verdicts, and settlement figures is critical to show the rate and size of success for victims.Illinois Dog Bite Verdicts Compared to the Rest of Nation
At the onset, it is interesting to note that while dog bites and attacks are roughly as common in Illinois as in other states, litigation surrounding them is much more frequent in Illinois than in the rest of the country. It has been home to almost one in three dog incident cases in the last ten years. However, in terms of compensation distributions for plaintiffs, Illinois and the nation closely mirrored each other. For those receiving under fifty thousand dollars ($50,000.00), the former had 65% (with 22% receiving nothing and 43% receiving up to $50,000.00) and the latter had 68% (with 15% receiving nothing and 43% receiving up to $50,000.00).
Then, both saw a precipitous decline in the next two brackets. Illinois had 30% bringing in between fifty thousand dollars ($50,000.00) and five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000.00) and 4% receiving more than five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000.00). The rest of the nation saw 39% get between fifty thousand dollars ($50,000.00) and five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000.00) as well as 5% get more than five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000.00).
If Illinois is the king of dog bite litigation in the country, Cook county is the king of dog bite litigation in Illinois. It accounts for more than a third of all cases. Cook also follows the general downward sloping trend for victim compensation. The biggest bulk is those receiving under fifty thousand dollars ($50,000.00) at 62%. In fact, those who received nothing accounted for a whopping 40%. This was followed by the 31% who earned between fifty thousand dollars ($50,000.00) and five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000.00).
Finally, only 7% earned more than five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000.00). All in all, plaintiffs in dog bite cases earned significantly less than they traditionally do in other personal injury cases, such as those involving medical malpractice, nursing homes, or construction accidents. Across Illinois, the average victim received approximately $121,769 per case; however, those in Cook county fared considerably better, bringing in about $180,909 of compensation on average for each lawsuit.Understanding why Some Illinois Dog Bite Cases are Worth What They Are
Appreciating the outcomes in dog bite and attack cases from Illinois requires an understanding of some basic legal principles. In civil cases, plaintiffs must prove beyond a preponderance of the evidence that their claims are more likely than not to be true; essentially, this is more than a 50% chance. This standard is lower than what is required in criminal cases, where the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of each count because. Illinois law adds a further dimension to consider when establishing liability and compensation, because it has adopted the modified regime of comparative fault.
That is, plaintiffs can only recover if the jury finds the plaintiff to be less than 50% at fault, and then even so, they can only recover for their damages minus the total of their own negligence. Obviously, these issues are complicated by the presence of animals at the center of these incidents, and the task of identifying fault and responsibility are obviously complicated.
An example that illustrates how these concepts blend into difficult situations is when the plaintiff has to prove a lack of provocation under the Illinois Animal Control Act. The case of Stehl v. Dose shows the complexity of this issue. There, the original owner of a German Shepherd let the plaintiff have his dog for the day. The plaintiff then tied the dog to a tree and began to feed and pet it. The dog acted peacefully for awhile but soon attacked the man when he was not looking. The court stated that the issue revolved around whether the plaintiff had provoked the dog by coming and remaining close while it ate. Further, it ruled that provocation must be viewed from the dog’s perspective. However, it gave no hard and fast rule as to what provocation actually constitutes; to the contrary, it left this decision, with all of the procedural negligence and fault rules discussed above, to the fluctuating minds of a jury.
The court in Robinson v. Meadows elaborated on the topic of provocation. While noting that the Illinois Animal Control Act inherently lowered the bar to bring suit for dog bite attacks, it also did not completely abolish all prime facie requirements. Yet, it tempered the logic of Stehl by saying that while the dog’s perspective is key for provocation purposes, it must be reasonable in response to the triggering event. In this case, the dog ran over to a child and ripped her lip off after she had screamed upon hearing a knock at the door.
Unlike in Stehl, the court did not find provocation here. It said that dog owners cannot claim provocation merely by showing the existence of some outside stimulus at the time of the attack. Instead, it must be directed at the dog and the dog’s response must be proportional to the stimulus. In this sense, the court ameliorated the “lack of provocation” demand within the Act. A review of case literature suggests that generally taking care or control of animal will not equal provocation, unless it is a stranger. Also, short of physicality on the human’s part, any bodily harm that a dog causes in response to a stimulus will generally be seen as disproportionate.
Short of these legal tangles that juries must decide, there are other, more evidentiary concerns that often foreclose any jury decision ex ante. The first is whether or not the plaintiff assumed the risk of a possible injury and went towards the dog anyways. This often comes up when victims know of the dogs’ dangerous behavior or continue after the dog has been barking at them for a significant amount of time. In this way, they have been given notice and should not seek legal redress for their injury under the Act because it is more for situations of an unexpected or sudden attack.
The other significant evidentiary threshold issue to be analyzed is whether or not the plaintiff was a trespasser at the time of attack. This is important because the Act specifically bars them from recovery. Therefore, issues normally turn on whether the victim had specific consent or a general license to be on the premises in the first place. Proving this can stop the defense from short-circuiting the case to a quick and easy end. Also, permission tends to be a multiplier for jury awards because it implicitly weakens any argument that the dog’s response was reasonable and proportional. Thus, plaintiffs would be well-suited to show that they were there for business purposes or invited for a social gathering.Bitten or Attacked by a Dog in Illinois? What You can Draw From This Data
A review of dog bite and attack cases in Illinois shows that plaintiffs have a rougher road with bleaker endings than similarly situated plaintiffs pursuing other claims. Typically, awards and settlements are lower than what is common in other areas of law. Additionally, murky legal concepts and byzantine procedural rules put in the hands of inexperienced juries make prediction and certainty an ethereal concept. The only certainty is that once you have been attacked by a dog, you should immediately contact an attorney.
Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC will counsel you on the steps you need to take in order to preserve your chance for trial, award, and settlement. This may include guidance on collecting evidence, memorializing your thoughts, where to go, or even who to talk to next. Our Chicago dog bite lawyers will be able to explain to you the intricacies of the law and how they relate to your case as well as any ramifications they may have on your recovery.