Case Number: Claim Settled Before Lawsuit Filed
Joye Law Firm attorney Brent Arant negotiated a $300,000 pre-lawsuit settlement for a young girl who was bitten by a Rottweiler in her front yard in Charleston. The claim was brought against the owners of the dog.
The settlement paid for the child’s medical bills and will provide money to pay for future medical expenses related to emotional trauma and cosmetic surgery to address permanent scarring that the child suffered.
It also sends a strong message that reckless conduct on the part of dog owners endangers everyone and makes our communities less safe, and such conduct will not be tolerated.
Facts of the Case
The 10-year-old girl, whose name was withheld due to a confidentiality agreement, was playing with her brothers in their front yard on a Saturday morning in December 2018 when a dog entered her yard and approached her. The animal appeared to be friendly, but when she bent down to pet the dog, it bit her.
“When you are 10 years old and you see a furry animal, your first instinct is to try to pet the dog, not knowing of its violent tendencies,” Arant said. “The dog bit her under the chin.”
Many dog bites involve children who have not yet developed the judgment to recognize signs of a dog’s anxiety and aggression.
The girl suffered puncture wounds to her head and neck. She was transported by ambulance for emergency medical treatment. Her wounds required stitches.
The child’s mother had the presence of mind to put a leash on the Rottweiler and restrain it until animal control officers arrived and took the animal away to be quarantined.
Brent Arant said the evidence suggested the Rottweiler and a pit bull owned by the same family had been allowed to roam the neighborhood and an investigation found the Rottweiler had bitten an adult the night before the child was bitten.
The dog owners were charged and convicted of a municipal ordinance violation of having animals running at large.
Challenge of Finding Insurance Coverage
In South Carolina, dog owners are liable for the injuries of the person bitten if the person is attacked while in a public place or lawfully in a private place.
“Dog owners are strictly liable,” Arant said. “There are not many defenses on these types of cases.”
A common challenge for attorneys handling dog bite cases, however, is identifying insurance policies to provide compensation. A further complication is that many insurance companies add exclusions to homeowners’ policies that specifically exclude coverage for certain breeds of dogs such as Rottweilers and pit bulls.
“A lot of people don’t realize that when they are buying homeowners’ insurance,” Arant said. “It’s really unfortunate. The purpose of insurance is to protect you or the other person when unfortunate situations arise. As homeowners, we want there to be protection if our dog does something wrong.”
On behalf of his client, Arant sent the dog owners a letter notifying them of the serious nature of the child’s injuries and of their responsibility. He inquired about their insurance coverage.
Within a matter of weeks after sending the letter, he was contacted by the insurance company representing the dog owner. Arant determined that the dog owners’ homeowner’s insurance policy included $300,000 in liability coverage.
Seeking Insurance Policy Limits
Arant approached the negotiations with the insurer with the goal of making the insurance company pay the policy limits. He made it his mission to make the insurance company and the dog owners understand the severity of their actions.
“We thought there was reckless conduct on the part of the dog owner,” he said. “The fact was that the dog was roaming the neighborhood and had bitten two people within 24 hours.”
He obtained a copy of the South Carolina Department of Health and Animal Control investigation and the outcome of the court proceedings against the dog owners.
Ongoing Effects of the Dog Attack
Eventually, the child’s wounds healed, but she was left with raised scars on her face and neck. She sought treatment from a dermatologist to try to make the scars less visible. She also met with a plastic surgeon, who said she would benefit from scar revision surgery when she was older.
“Oftentimes, a person bitten by a dog will have low medical bills,” Arant said. “That doesn’t tell the whole story when you have significant scarring as a result of a dog bite. You have to build up a case so the insurance company will see it as you see it.”
In additional to physical injuries, the girl was no longer comfortable around dogs and experienced anxiety. She was exposed to some taunting from children at school because of the scarring and began to struggle in school. Her mother took her to see a counselor to address the emotional trauma.
Arant made sure the insurance company was aware of the many adverse effects of the dog attack and its impact on the life of this young girl.
“Her mother kept taking her to medical professionals for treatment of the injuries,” Arant said. “That gave us a strong footing.”
Reaching a Settlement with the Insurance Company
Arant sent the insurance company a 30-page letter detailing the seriousness of the dog attack, the investigation by animal control, the child’s medical needs and expenses and the dog owners’ negligence. He informed the insurance company that he would seek punitive damages for his client if the case went to court and gave them a deadline to respond.
“We were building the case where the insurance company had only one option – to agree with us and pay the limits of the policy,” he said. “They agreed with our representation of the case.”
The case was settled in September 2020 for the full limits of the policy.