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When can you sue a dog owner for a bite?

Dog bites can range from a small but painful nip on the ankle by a Chihuahua protecting its home or person to a devastating attack by a large, strong dog. Recently, here in Michigan, a pit bull at the Oakland County Animal Shelter that had been removed from its home and placed in quarantine after reportedly biting people, attacked an employee so aggressively that she ended up in the hospital with muscle damage requiring surgery.

Dogs sometimes pay the ultimate price, as this one did, for their actions. It was shot and killed because it wouldn't let go of the shelter employee. However, when a dog injures someone, its owners can be sued by the victim under certain circumstances.

The laws regarding liability for dog bites and attacks vary. In some cases, an owner can't be held liable the first time a dog bites someone since it's presumed they'd have no way of knowing their dog had aggressive tendencies.

Here in Michigan, however, we have what's called "strict liability" when it comes to dog bites. An owner can be held liable the first time their dog bites someone unless they can show that the victim was trespassing on their property and/or provoked the animal in some way.

You can take legal action against an owner if you were bitten or attacked by a dog in a public space. You can also sue them if you were injured by the dog on private property where you were invited or had a right to be (such as a mail carrier or utility worker doing their job or a customer at a business). However, you'll need to show that you did nothing to harm or otherwise provoke the dog prior to the bite.

Victims can seek damages to cover medical bills, loss of income and other economic damages. If the injuries are so severe that they will likely result in long-term disfigurement or disability, you can also seek compensation for emotional distress and other noneconomic damages. Even a serious bite or attack that doesn't leave permanent physical scars can leave emotional ones.

Michigan's statute of limitations for seeking compensation for dog bites is three years from the date of the injury. It's best to discuss your legal options with an attorney.

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