Legal Spin: Canine Crashes
Guest column by bicycle lawyer John Duggan
You may recall the scene from the movie "American Flyers" where Marcus Sommers (played by Kevin Costner) tells his younger brother, Dave, that they will be meeting up with "Eddie" later in the ride for a little speed work. A few miles up the road, Dave finally meets Eddie who turns out to be an extremely fast dog whose sole purpose in life is to chase cyclists. In the movie, Dave is lucky and is able to outride Eddie. But what happens if your encounter with Eddie does not have the same happy ending?
Over the past five years I have represented approximately a dozen cyclists whose encounters with dogs have left them with serious injuries, totaled bikes, permanent scars and thousands of dollars in medical bills. While every state and local jurisdiction will have its own laws pertaining to dogs, if a dog bites you or causes you to crash while you are cycling in a public place, you will most likely have a negligence action against the dog's owner. Generally, a dog owner has a duty to keep the dog under control so that it does not interfere with your use of the roadway, bike path, trail, etc.
Most homeowner’s policies will provide liability coverage to the dog owner for the bad acts of the dog. The dog owner’s homeowner’s policy will most likely have a medical payments provision which will pay the initial medical bills up to a set limit which is usually $1000 but which can be increased to $10,000 depending on the policy. After you exhaust the homeowner’s medical payments policy, then your health insurance should step up to pay the remaining medical bills. Your medical insurance will most likely require that you exhaust the homeowner’s medical payments policy prior to tapping your own medical insurance.
After you have recovered from your injuries, you will need to bring a bodily injury claim against the homeowner’s policy for recovery of your lost wages, medical bills over and above the medical payments provision in the homeowner’s policy, and your general damages, including pain and suffering, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, etc. You can also bring a claim against the homeowner’s policy to recover any property damage caused by the dog. If you receive damages from the dog owner’s liability policy then your medical insurance carrier will most likely demand reimbursement for any medical bills it paid on your behalf.
These cases can be quite serious. I'm currently representing a client who was severely injured when a dog lunged at him while he was riding through a quiet residential neighborhood. My client sustained multiple rib fractures, a clavicle fracture, two pelvic fractures, a punctured lung and extensive bruising. He was hospitalized for eight days and has incurred a mountain of medical bills.
Just like car versus bike incidents, a dog attack can occur when you least expect it. However, there are certain situations that you should avoid. If you know that there is an unleashed dog on your normal route, take the time to notify animal control and encourage them to confront the dog owner. When you encounter a dog, whether leashed or unleashed, try to give both the dog and the dog owner lots of room and plenty of warning that you are approaching. This is especially true on paths/trails that are commonly used by cyclists, pedestrians and dog walkers. If you attempt to pass too closely or quickly, the dog’s first reaction might be to snap or lunge at you and you risk getting bitten or tangled up in the leash.
The bottom line is that bikes and even the friendliest of dogs do not mix well. Try to avoid the encounter or, if you are cycling with friends, simply ride faster than everyone else!
John Duggan is an avid cyclist and Seattle attorney who represents injured cyclists. He is a member of the Cascade Bicycle Club, Bicycle Alliance of Washington, League of American Bicyclists and the Washington State Association for Justice. He is also a sponsor of various cycling teams in the region. He can be reached at 206-343-1888 or firstname.lastname@example.org.