The UK is renowned as an animal-loving nation with research from the PDSA confirming that 26% of the UK population have a dog. This equates to a pet dog population of 9.9 million. While the vast majority of dog owners are conscientious and take their responsibilities very seriously, there are some exceptions to the rule. However, just because a dog has bitten somebody does not necessarily mean that the owner has been negligent and is liable to pay compensation.
We will now take a look at an array of subjects to take into consideration with regards to dog attacks, treatment of dogs and ultimate liability for any injuries caused.
Acts of Parliament
It may come as no surprise to learn that with a pet dog population of circa 10 million in the UK there are numerous acts of Parliament to protect animals, people and property.
Animal Welfare Act 2006
Many pet owners may not be aware but under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, they can be fined up to £20,000 and face a prison sentence of six months if found not to look after their pets properly. In some circumstances, the pets can be taken away from the owner and a banning order issued.
As a consequence of the act, all domestic animals have the right to:-
- Eat a suitable diet
- Protection from pain, suffering, injury and disease
- Live in a suitable environment
- Exhibit normal behavioural patterns
At first glance, this may seem a totally separate subject to the claiming of personal injury compensation. However, in the event of an altercation, the courts will look back on any previous convictions to gather an impression of the pet owner and the pet’s habits.
Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 (Updates the Dangerous Dog Act 1991)
This is a very important act of Parliament which defines a “dangerously out of control” animal in legal terms. While much of this is common sense, there are a number of grey areas which have caused issues in historic court cases. This act specifically looks at those with a legal right to be on your property and those with no legal right. The examples of those with a legal right include:-
- Delivery drivers
- Postal workers
- Health workers
The most obvious example of a person with no legal right to be in your home, or on your property, is that of a burglar. The list of those with a legal right to be on your property is significantly greater than those listed above but this gives you an idea of the type of people we are talking about. If they are attacked by your dog and injured in any way then, assuming they can prove the animal was “dangerously out of control”, they may well have a case for compensation.
It is also worth noting that the animal does not need to have physically injured an individual for an offence to take place. If they felt intimidated, were unable to gain entry or perhaps cornered by an animal then they may be able to claim for mental stress. When it comes to intruders or others on your property with no legal right, there is an exemption in place for the animal’s keeper.
Dangerous Dogs Act 1991
As we touched on above, while the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 relates to animals “dangerously out of control” this does not necessarily mean physical injuries need to occur. The owner can be fined by the authorities, anywhere up to £5000, with a potential prison sentence up to 6 months. This type of offence would obviously add significant support with regards to a victim claiming personal injury compensation. A number of different breeds have also been deemed illegal in the UK and those found in possession can face extremely serious consequences.
Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, Animals Act 1971
Over the years a number of acts have been updated, amended and integrated with other regulations. These acts cover the subject of “worrying” livestock. It states that all pet owners have a legal obligation to control their dogs and prevent them from attacking, chasing or worrying livestock. There may be circumstances where pregnant livestock are worried to a level (but not physically injured) which causes distress and could result in potential prosecution. This then brings us onto the issue of personal injury claims as a consequence of injury and/or damage to property, livestock or both.
Claiming for personal injury compensation
As with any dog bite compensation claim, the claimant will need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that an offence had occurred and the keeper/owner was liable. Legally the defendant will be classed as the “keeper” which can be the owner or the individual who was in charge of the animal at the time of the offence. In some cases, the “keeper” may well be a dog walker or other professional in the pet business sector.
In years gone by there was an old adage “every dog is entitled to one bite” but this is no longer the case. Yes, the courts will appreciate and take into account patterns of behaviour but it can literally be a case of one strike and you are out. So, pet owners need to be on their guard 24/7 to ensure they have adequate control of their animals and they are no direct threat to others.
Different scenarios and legal issues
It’s no surprise to learn that there are a number of exemptions with regards to the claiming of personal injury compensation as a consequence of injuries received. The list is relatively long but includes scenarios such as:-
- Damage or injury due wholly to the fault of the claimant
- If the claimant voluntarily accepted potential risks around the animal
- Compensation is unlikely if the claimant was trespassing
- The animal was kept for protection purposes which were not unreasonable
- When the claimant is given sufficient warning about potential risks
The list is long but in reality, it really all boils down to common sense. If you have a potentially aggressive animal then you need to ensure it is under control at all times even if this includes the use of a muzzle. Where there is the potential for the animal to bite an individual or chase livestock then the appropriate action should be taken to avoid this and warnings given to those in the vicinity.
For example, you would not take a potentially vicious animal into a crowd of people where it may become agitated and strike out. The animal may well be defending itself but the very fact that it was taken into that environment could in itself be seen as negligent leading to liability and the payment of compensation.
Causing secondary incidents
It is also worth taking into account the potential for an uncontrolled dog to cause a secondary incident which could well lead to accidents/injuries. Some of the potential scenarios include:-
- Loose dog on the road causing a road traffic accident
- Trips, slips and falls when avoiding a dog on the loose/acting aggressively
- Aggressive dog causing another animal to flee, causing a secondary incident
The issue of secondary incidents is one which should not be taken lightly. If it can be proven that the initial actions of an uncontrolled dog led to a secondary incident then the keeper may well be pursued for compensation.
Common injuries involving dogs
There tends to be a general misconception that it is only large dogs which cause significant injuries when this is not always the case. Injuries can vary significantly including:-
- Nips and scratches
- Drawing of blood
- Injury to limbs
- Visible scarring
- Life-threatening injuries
- Injury to livestock
Unfortunately, although thankfully fairly rare, we have seen situations where two or more dogs can revert to a pack mentality causing horrific injuries and sometimes death. The fact that such animals were left with for example children could leave the keeper open to claims of negligence and liability for any injuries received. Again, much of this comes down to common sense but it can be useful to see the legal consequences.
As we mentioned on numerous occasions earlier in this article, maintaining control of your dog in private and in public often comes down to common sense. Very few pet owners would contemplate leaving their children alone with animals as no matter how slight the risk, there is a risk. A child could annoy and agitate an animal and “force it” into a defensive aggressive reaction. This can very quickly snowball with potentially horrendous consequences.
Finding a balance between your legal obligations to give an animal a certain standard of living, while removing that animal from situations which may cause discomfort and potential acts of aggression is not easy. However, if for example, your animal is not good with other dogs then maybe look to choose a walking route which is relatively quiet. If other people or animals come into the vicinity of your pet, perhaps warn them that your pet may react in an aggressive manner.
All pet owners are advised to take out comprehensive insurance which would cover potential compensation claims in the event of an attack or episode of aggression. In cases where the keeper is able to prove they took reasonable action to avoid conflict/injury then they may well be able to overturn claims of negligence/liability. However, legal fees can be significant if a compensation claim is taken to court and therefore insurance cover can prove invaluable.
As a dog owner, it may be sensible to undertake some kind of formal training for your pet to give you greater control and confidence when faced with potentially difficult scenarios. The ability to recall your animal under instruction can be priceless, use of the stay command can avoid a whole array of uncomfortable issues and a greater understanding of dog traits can also prove extremely useful. Above all, common sense will also be a very useful guide.