Nearly five million Americans are the victims of a dog bite every year, resulting in abrasions, scarring, sprains, strains, rabies, cellulitis, bacterial infections, fractured bones, punctures, lacerations, and severe bleeding. In some cases, victims even sustain nerve damage, disability, deformity or death. Needless to say, a dog bite can prove to be one of the most devastating physical experiences of a person’s life.
In addition, dog bite victims can experience severe psychological and emotional pain. The scope of mental trauma associated with a dog bite is oftentimes widely overlooked and underestimated. Symptoms such as paranoia, anxiety, and various phobias can develop, having a great effect on a victim’s life and rendering their previous lifestyle sometimes unmanageable.
Without obvious physical or external scars, victims often believe they have no grounds for compensation following a dog bite. Perhaps the victim feels embarrassed the incident had such profound effects on their life. Or maybe a victim has not realized that subsequent panic attacks are the result of the incident. It’s important to recognize that victims deserve compensation for emotional trauma caused by a dog bite injury.
Colorado Dog Bite Statute
Like many other states, Colorado has a “Dog Bite” law. Unfortunately, Colorado’s dog bite statute is among the most unnecessarily complicated and unfair in the U.S. Under C.R.S. 13-21-124, a person who suffers serious bodily injury or death from being bitten by a dog while lawfully on public or private property shall be entitled to bring a civil action to recover economic damages against the dog owner regardless of the viciousness or dangerous propensities of the dog or the dog owner’s knowledge of the dog’s vicious or dangerous propensities. Pursuant to Colorado law, victims are placed into different classes.
The First Class
The first class includes victims who fit within the exception to C.R.S. 13-21-124, including anyone who was “unlawfully on public or private property” or was on the dog owner’s property “clearly and conspicuously marked with one or more posted signs stating ‘no trespassing’ or ‘beware of dog,’” or was “knowingly provoking the dog,” or performing the duties of a veterinary healthcare worker, dog groomer, humane agency staff person, professional dog handler, trainer, or dog show judge.
The Second Class
The second class includes those who neither suffered serious bodily injury nor can prove the requirements of the “one-bite rule”. Victims in the first two classes cannot recover compensation under the statute.
The Third Class
The third class includes those who suffered “serious bodily injury,” meaning bodily injury which, either at the time of the actual injury or at a later time, involved a substantial risk of death, a substantial risk of serious permanent disfigurement, a substantial risk of protracted loss or impairment of the function of any part or organ of the body, or breaks, fractures, or burns of the second or third degree.”
Unfortunately, victims in this class are not entitled to full compensation because the dog bite statute limits a victim’s remedy to “economic damages.” Thus, a dog owner is strictly liable only for “economic damages” unless the seriously injured person can prove the requirements for liability under the “one-bite rule.” While the term “economic damages” is not defined in the dog bite statute, its meaning has been deduced to include past medical bills, future medical bills, past psychological counseling, future psychological counseling, past loss of income, and loss of earning power as a result of disability or disfigurement.
The Fourth Class
The fourth class includes any person, regardless of degree of injury, who can prove the elements required by the “one-bite rule” or other cause of action. If the requisite elements can be proved, the victim of serious bodily injury or lesser injury can receive not only economic damages but also non-economic damages. Non-economic damages can include pain and suffering, inconvenience, emotional stress, and impairment of the quality of life. However, while economic damages are not limited in amount, the non-economic damages are limited in most cases to $350,000.00.
The Fifth Class
The fifth class includes victims who were seriously injured and can satisfy the requirements of the “one-bite rule” and who also suffered physical impairment or disfigurement. The cap on economic damages does not apply to compensation for physical impairment or disfigurement. Otherwise stated, the economic and non-economic damages are unlimited if a victim suffered physical impairment or disfigurement.
Negligence and Negligence Per Se
If a victim does not fit into one of the five aforementioned classes, they may still be able to recover under a theory of negligence. A dog owner may still be liable for negligence if he or she did not use reasonable care to prevent injuries or damages that could have reasonably been anticipated to be caused by the dangerous or destructive tendencies of the animal. For this type of claim to have merit, a victim will have to show the attacking dog had dangerous and destructive tendencies. Negligence based upon the vicious propensities of a dog stands as a separate cause of action and is certainly not subsumed into the Colorado dog bite statute.
Finally, a victim of a dog bite might be able to assert a claim for negligence per se. This cause of action becomes a proper ground for liability when a dog owner violates a statute or ordinance that is intended to prevent harm. According to Colorado courts, some situations that may not be considered inherently dangerous to others but could pose a risk of danger under certain circumstances and may be regulated by statute or ordinance, which, in turn, may be the basis of a negligence per se claim if the statute is violated.
In such situations, the statute itself establishes the standard of care and its violation is equivalent to a breach of duty and conclusively establishes that aspect of a victim’s negligence claim. The availability of negligence per se based on a statutory violation is of great importance in Colorado because Colorado law makes it a criminal offense to own and harbor a dangerous dog, defined as any dog that has inflicted bodily or serious bodily injury upon or has caused the death of a person.
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