Dog Bite Levels and Their Legal Implications
Although many dog owners consider their pets loyal companions or family members, even the gentlest and most affectionate dog can suddenly lash out, becoming aggressive without any warning or provocation. Unfortunately, innocent people can become victims of dog attacks. Dog trainers, veterinarians, and animal behavioral experts recognize six levels of dog bites, first categorized by Dr. Ian Dunbar. The severity of a dog attack can have implications for the injuries and the victim’s legal rights to financial recovery. The severity of an attack may also determine a dog owner’s liability for future attacks or, in rare cases, lead to criminal charges for an owner.
Level 1—Aggressive But No Skin Contact
The least severe level of dog attack includes incidents in which a dog displays aggressive behavior toward a person or another animal, but the dog’s teeth do not make contact with the victim’s skin. Such aggressive behaviors can include:
- Rapid, loud barking
- Snapping with the mouth
- Stalking or cutting off the person’s retreat
In some cases, Level 1 attacks occur due to a dog’s fear, anxiety, or physical distress rather than aggressiveness or viciousness. Level 1 dog attacks rarely lead to injury claims since an attack victim usually suffers no physical injuries. However, Level 1 attacks can have legal implications for future attacks or bites inflicted by the dog. In Texas, a dog owner may bear liability for injuries inflicted by their animal if the owner knew about their dog’s aggressive or violent tendencies via prior incidents in which the dog got aggressive with or attempted to attack another person. Level 1 attacks may also support a finding of negligence by a dog owner if the owner failed to appropriately respond to their dog’s aggressive behavior, such as by obtaining additional behavioral training or keeping the dog leashed and muzzled while in public.
Level 2—Teeth Make Contact, But Do Not Break Skin
In a Level 2 dog bite/attack, a dog’s teeth will make contact with a person’s skin; however, the dog does not bite down with enough force to break the skin. However, the bite may leave red marks, bruises, or minor abrasions. As a result, Level 2 bites rarely lead to personal injury claims.
Some Level 2 bites may occur because a dog feels stress or discomfort and wants the bite victim to stop or leave them alone, such as when a veterinarian or groomer handles a dog. As with Level 1 attacks, a Level 2 bite may serve as evidence for a dog bite claim arising from a subsequent attack to prove that the dog’s owner knew about their animal’s tendency to bite or attack humans.
Level 3—A Single Bite with Shallow Wounds
A Level 3 dog bite occurs when a dog bites down with enough force for the dog’s canine teeth to make shallow puncture wounds. The bite can also cause lacerations when the dog’s mouth moves along the bite victim’s skin due to the victim pulling away from the dog, an owner pulling their dog away, or a dog falling back to the ground after jumping up to bite the victim.
Level 3 dog bites frequently lead to personal injury claims as bite victims will need some medical treatment, such as stitches to close puncture wounds or lacerations and wound dressings. A bite victim may need anti-viral medications or antibiotics if the dog has an unknown vaccination history or confirmed viral infection or if the bite victim develops signs of infection at the wound site.
Although a dog owner may not bear any liability for a Level 3 dog bite if their dog has no history of violence and the bite did not occur due to the owner’s negligent handling, a first bite will impose liability on the owner if their dog attacks someone again.
Level 4—A Single Bite with Deep Wounds
A Level 4 dog bite involves one to four puncture wounds deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. Injuries may also include deep bruising or lacerations caused by the dog biting down and applying pressure for more than several seconds or shaking its head while biting down. Depending on the severity of the injuries, a Level 4 dog bite may require the same kind of medical treatment as Level 3 bites or may need more intensive care, such as surgical repair. Dog bites on hands and feet can also apply enough bite force to break bones. A dog big enough to reach a child victim’s head and neck area can inflict fatal injuries with a Level 4 bite.
Level 4 dog bites will almost certainly lead to personal injury claims against dog owners. However, an owner may have a defense against a claim by showing that the dog had no prior history of aggression or viciousness and the owner did not negligently handle the dog. However, dogs willing to bite and clamp down on a person usually have a history of snapping at or nipping people.
Level 5—Multiple Bites with Deep Wounds
Level 5 dog bites involve cases where a dog inflicts multiple Level 4 bites on one or more victims. When a Level 5 bite involves only one victim, they may suffer extensive injuries that require significant medical treatment. In most cases, dogs that inflict Level 5 bites have a history of biting people as their willingness to press an attack in a Level 5 bite demonstrates a lack of fear of the bite victim fighting back or receiving discipline from the owner. Dog trainers frequently recommend that dogs who inflict Level 5 bites always remain in the owner’s home except for veterinary appointments, with the dog locked or fenced away when the owner has children inside the home.
Level 6—Death of the Victim and/or Flesh Consumed
A Level 6 dog bite involves any incident where the dog proceeds to consume a person’s flesh or inflicts fatal injuries on the bite victim. Authorities usually consider dogs willing to mutilate or kill people too dangerous to leave alive and will typically order the dog euthanized after a Level 6 attack. A Level 6 dog attack may also result in criminal charges against an owner if the attack occurred due to the owner’s criminal negligence in handling their animal or if the owner knew their dog had a history of dangerousness or viciousness and the attack occurred outside the dog’s secured enclosure.
Texas Dog Bite Laws
Texas does not have a statute establishing a dog owner’s liability for injuries inflicted by their pet. Instead, Texas courts have recognized several theories of liability in dog bite injury cases:
- Prior knowledge of a dog’s dangerous or violent tendencies: The law may hold a dog owner strictly liable for injuries inflicted by their animal if the owner knew of their dog’s aggressive or vicious nature, including from prior incidents in which the dog attacked or bit another person or animal.
- Negligence: Even if an owner does not know their dog’s dangerousness, they may still bear liability for injuries inflicted by their dog when the owner’s negligent handling leads to the dog’s attack, such as failing to maintain the dog’s enclosure, allowing the dog to escape and roam free.
A dog owner may have several defenses to liability in a dog bite claim, such as:
- Provocation: Under Texas’s comparative negligence law, an injured party may not recover compensation if they bear more than 50 percent responsibility for causing their injuries. A jury or judge may find that someone who provokes a dog by taunting or teasing the animal bears most of the fault for causing the dog to bite.
- Trespassing: A dog owner may not bear liability for injuries inflicted by their dog when the dog bites or attacks a trespasser on the owner’s property.
Compensation in a Dog Bite Claim
In a dog bite injury claim, you may have the right to obtain financial recovery for ongoing and future losses you incur due to your injuries, including for:
- Medical treatment and rehabilitation, including emergency care, surgeries, hospitalization, medications, or physical/occupational therapy
- Costs of long-term care, such as home health services to help with prolonged or permanent disabilities or mental health therapy to cope with the psychological effects of the dog attack or resulting injuries
- Lost wages/income for missed time from work during your recovery period
- Loss of future earning capacity and employment benefits if you become permanently disabled from your job and other kinds of work
- Physical pain and anguish
- Emotional trauma or distress, including lost quality of life due to permanent disabilities or visible scarring/disfigurement
What Should You Do After a Dog Bite?
When someone else’s dog has bitten you, steps you can take to prepare for a personal injury claim to recover compensation from a liable dog owner include:
- Notify the dog’s owner of your injuries.
- Seek immediate medical attention, including repairing physical trauma inflicted by the dog or medications to treat potential viral/bacterial infections.
- Request your medical records of your treatment and rehabilitation.
- Keep all bills, invoices, and receipts of medical expenses and other costs you incur during your recovery.
- Gather copies of your pay stubs, income statements, or tax returns to calculate your lost earnings if you need to miss time from work during your recovery or experience a reduction in your earnings while on part-time/light duty.
Finally, immediately contact a dog bite attorney to discuss your legal options and get help pursuing financial relief for your injuries and losses.
Statute of Limitations on Dog Bite Claims
Under Texas’s statute of limitations on injury claims, a person injured by a dog bite or attack typically has two years to file a lawsuit against the dog’s owner. Because courts strictly enforce statutes of limitations, a dog bite victim must act quickly to prepare and file their legal claims before the deadline. The court can dismiss any lawsuit filed after the deadline, potentially causing the bite victim to lose their right to financial compensation.
Contact Our Dog Bite Lawyers to Learn More About Your Legal Options
After suffering injuries from a bite or attack inflicted by someone else’s dog, you may have the right to recover compensation for your ongoing and future expenses or losses. Experienced legal counsel can give you the best chance of obtaining maximum financial recovery for your medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering. Contact Loewy Law Firm today for a free, no-obligation consultation with a knowledgeable Austin dog bite lawyer to learn how we can assist you with your dog bite injury claim.