Vicious dog attacks on people may inspire dog bite attorneys to include a punitive damages claim in their lawsuit in addition to the usual claim for customary compensatory damages and other damages associated with a dog bite lawsuit. Generally speaking, punitive damages are difficult to establish in these kinds of cases, and frequently the defense will file a motion to exclude a punitive damages claim.
Case law in most states does not specify the criteria for punitive damages in dog bite lawsuits. Therefore, the Court usually decides if the claim goes before a jury, and if it does the burden is on the plaintiff to establish that the dog owner acted with “despicable disregard” with regard to public safety. Very often this is difficult to prove because of lack of conclusive evidence implicating the dog in a previous dog bite attack.
Punitive damage awards rendered by a jury may be quite substantial. A case in point is a verdict in in DeKalb County, Georgia in which the jury awarded to the victim, an eight-year-old girl at the time of the 2010 incident, an award for punitive damages for $36 million. This included approximately $36 million for compensatory damages bringing the total award to $72 million. The judge later reduced the amount for punitive damages in January 2015 to about $36 million due to the upper limit of a punitive damage of $250,000 award as governed Georgia law. The victim’s left arm was partially amputated and her right arm was also severely injured.
The jury stated that they wanted to send a message to the public about irresponsible dog ownership. The fact pattern was very similar to the circumstances surrounding many other vicious dog bite attacks. Namely, the dog involved was a pit bull, more than one dog took part in the attack, the attack happened after the dogs escaped from the property in which they were kept, and the victim was attacked in front of her home while playing basketball. Moreover, evidence indicated that the dogs were attack trained. The defendant dog owner was found guilty of violating George’s Vicious Dog Act in the criminal proceedings and was sentenced to 16 months in jail.