Everyone knows the age-old adage that dogs are man’s best friend. Our furry companions are wonderful assets to our lives—but sometimes we forget that they are still strong and powerful animals, that react negatively when stressed or threatened. Part of being a responsible dog owner is keeping yourself and others safe, especially when the dog is with a sitter. Sometimes, however, despite our best efforts, a dog may attack someone else while in the care of a sitter.
So who is liable? It varies from state to state. California has very strict liability laws in that the owner is almost always responsible. However, these liability statutes often claim that the sitter can be considered the owner in certain situations, so it’s still not as cut and dry as it seems. Even so, state laws with strict liability statutes are easier to litigate dog bite injury cases, as proving negligence is not necessary—if the dog bit you, the owner is considered negligent.
What if the dog bites the sitter?
Technically, if the owner knew the dog was mischievous or dangerous, the owner is still liable. However, the sitter, in particular, is a gray area. Since California law carries exceptions for those “voluntarily” putting themselves at risk, sitters who are aware of a dog’s proclivity for violence may carry partial liability if the dog bites them while under their care. If the sitter is negligent, or somehow provokes the dog, they can also be considered partially liable for a dog bite.
What if the dog bites someone else?
The owner is liable if the bite victim was “lawfully in a private place”, or else in a public place when the dog bite occurred. The pet sitter can be considered the negligent party, especially if the pet sitter did not take reasonable steps to control a vicious or otherwise dangerous animal. For example, if an owner going out of town leaves a muzzle, and the pet sitter forgets and the dog bites a passerby, the sitter will likely be found liable despite not being the true owner of the dog. This can change, however, if the person is going through a specific sitting service, like Wag or Rover, which has their own rules and policies as outlined below.
Dog bites while in the care of Rover:
Technically, even if in the care of a Rover sitter, the pet sitter or dog’s owner is liable. However, should the animal bite a third party while in the care of a Rover provider, Rover offers what they call, “The Guarantee.” This is an extra fund that can supplement a pet owner’s insurance, should a lawsuit be filed against them.
It’s important to note that while this works like insurance, it is not a replacement for insurance, and is considered a last resort by Rover policy. Rover clearly states in their policy that pet owners and providers should contact their insurance first when something goes wrong—though they also ask that any incident be reported within 48 hours to be eligible for the program.
The Guarantee will not reimburse for any damages incurred to the pet sitter or pet care provider, however—only to a third party. The Guarantee is good for up to $1,000,000 for personal injury and requires the party taking advantage of the guarantee to contribute at least $250 towards their payout.
Dog bites while in the care of Wag:
Wag does not have such a generous policy. Since Wag is closer to the gig economy model, it considers providers independent 1099 contractors, not employees. This absolves them of all responsibility in the matter, and they take full advantage of that absolution.
Their policy states, “WE SHALL NOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR CONDUCT OR ANY THIRD-PARTY CONDUCT, INCLUDING WITHOUT LIMITATION, BODILY INJURY, INJURY TO ANY PETS, EMOTIONAL DISTRESS, AND/OR ANY OTHER DAMAGES THAT MAY RESULT FROM YOUR USE OF THE SERVICES.”
While this seems pretty cut and dry, their terms of service also offer a $500 limit for any damages under “applicable consumer law”, so it is possible to ask Wag for help or hold them accountable should the worst happen.
Are Employees Liable When a Dog Bites?
The short answer is that yes, often the company can be held accountable if the dog bites, though California law is stricter than most as far as owner responsibility. If the dog bites someone while in the care of a professional pet sitter, most often that provider’s insurance will be the one covering any claims of negligence or personal injury. However, as stated previously, 1099 contractors like those working for Wag or Rover do not fall under this category, and since it’s more often a “side hustle” than a profession, these providers are less likely to have insurance. Since, without insurance, any litigation is limited to the assets the individual owns, it’s smart to discuss with your legal counsel how much settling may actually behoove you.
If a dog walker is bitten while working for Rover or Wag, can they sue?
Though we stated previously that Rover’s guarantee explicitly doesn’t cover injuries to the dog walker or sitter, it’s far from being that simple. These services often require sitters to accept jobs without knowing the pet previously, meaning they can be contractually obligated to care for a pet without any previous knowledge of violent behavior. In addition, damages can be difficult to collect for pet sitters, since California law states that anyone working with pets assumes a certain level of risk (sometimes called the Veterinarian’s Rule or Fireman’s Law). If the sitter or pet care provider can prove that it was negligence on the part of the dog owner that caused the injury, then even under strict liability statutes sitters can be absolved.
A dog bite injury lawyer who is experienced in handling dog bite cases is essential where dog sitters are involved. In cases where the owner of the dog is not directly present, figuring out who is responsible can be a tricky and confusing business. Negligence becomes complicated in these cases, and can sometimes be so exasperating that judges dismiss cases altogether. Having legal counsel with experience in dog bite cases can ensure your medical expenses, pain and suffering, and other difficulties are taken into consideration in the verdict.
No matter who is liable, it’s important that you file the suit within the statute of limitations, which is two years in California. This can sometimes be extended, however, if the dog’s owner leaves the state for a period of time. This keeps owners from running away from a possible lawsuit and leaving a dog bite victim out to dry for injuries, loss of income, or other damages.
At Adamson Ahhoot LLP, we specialize in personal injury law and have over 100 years of combined legal experience defending the rights of dog attack victims. Our free consultations are available by calling (800) 310-1606 or by filling out an easy contact form. We have offices all over California and are poised to serve our community as best we can, offering Spanish-speaking services and other-community oriented programs. We are proud to take care of our community and hope our legal expertise can be of service to you in the complicated and difficult world of personal injury law. You never have to be alone when you’re with us.