Tuesday, December 2, 2008

No more free bites.

It used to be the law in Oregon that, to recover for a dog bite injury, you had to prove the dog owner knew or should have known that their dog was likely to bite. This was known as the "one free bite rule" wherein, it was said, an owner could only know that their dog might bite if it previously bit someone. Thus, if you were the unlucky first victim, the dog owner would escape liability, leaving you and your family holding the bag for your medical expenses, lost work, disfigurement, or even death. While it was still possible to prove that the owner knew or should have known of the dog's dangerous propensities, it was an uphill battle without knowledge of prior bites or other dangerous acts. Even if the owner did have such knowledge, it was very difficult to uncover proof of these dangerous acts without an outright admission of the dog owner at trial. Needless to say, an uphill battle awaited any unfortunate dog bite victim.

Luckily, beginning in 2008, the Oregon state legislature decided to better protect these victims. It passed a law making a dog owner liable for any economic damages stemming from their dog's unruly behavior. The law took away the "one free bite rule" regarding such damages, requiring every dog owner to assume that their dog is capable of causing harm. No longer can a dog owner appear at court and claim that "Fluffy" was always gentle and had never acted aggressively in the past, and therefore they should escape accountability. However, because of a compromise to get the law passed, the legislature left the old law intact regarding noneconomic damages (disfigurement, scarring, pain, suffering, emotional damages, etc.).

As an aside, I once had an arbitration where the owners claimed that their dog, "Fluffy" had never acted aggressively prior to the bite. However, after subpoenaing the dog's vet records, it was interesting to note that its prior name was actually "Demon" and had a history of acting aggressively at the vet and also towards visitors to the property. Moreover, the dog's name was changed after the lawsuit was filed, apparently in an attempt to hide its aggressive past. It was a stroke of luck uncovering these records, and, frankly, we would have had a difficult time without them. However, they were uncovered, and needless to say, it was a short arbitration.

To sum, dog owners must now operate under the assumption that their dog might bite others, and take appropriate precautions to protect other people. This creates more accountability of dog owners. However, the new law isn't perfect. It could easily cause someone to recover only economic damages while preventing the recovery of noneconomic damages (for instance, a child is mauled, and only their medical expenses are paid, even though they are left blind and horribly disfigured). However, it is a step in the right direction.

- Tim Williams

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