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Published 19 octubre 2022
Across the United Kingdom the pandemic has led to an unprecedented increase in pet ownership with a reported 3.2 million households acquiring a pet during the first year. The 'lockdown puppy', whilst bringing happiness to many, has led to a growing danger of dog attacks due to lack of socialisation and training. Northern Ireland now stands as the 3rd worst region in the UK for dog attacks with over 50 reported attacks on delivery drivers and postal staff alone in 2021. Attacks on members of the public are also increasing. Inevitably this will lead to more civil claims for compensation, with dog owners turning to their household and/or pet insurers for support.
In Northern Ireland, liability for a dog attack continues to be governed by legislation introduced almost 40 years ago - the Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1983, which replaced the common law rules and imposes a civil liability (Article 53) alongside criminal liability. The drafting of Article 53 has often been criticised by the Courts when considering civil liability; however it has not been amended and remains the basis for all civil compensation claims.
Civil liability for ‘damage’ is imposed upon the ‘keeper‘ of the dog which is defined as the person who owns the dog or who has it in his possession (or is the head of a household of which a member under the age of 16 owns the dog or has it in his possession). In addition, the occupier of any land on which the dog is found is deemed to be the keeper unless he can prove otherwise or show that the dog was on his land without his knowledge.
‘Damage’ includes death or injury to any person and covers both physical and psychological injuries. The seriousness of the injury is not a factor, and those attacked can be compensated for minor scratches and/or mild anxiety. A dog is deemed to have attacked if it actually attacks/bites, but also if it behaves in a manner so as to cause apprehension of an attack.
The keeper of the dog will be liable in a civil court for the injuries caused unless he can show that at the material time the dog was in the charge of another person whom he reasonably believed to be a fit and proper person to be in charge of the dog (the basis of a successful defence in the 1987 unreported NI case of Morrison v Miller) or can raise another defence from general law (the statue does not impose strict liability – although that may have been the intention). Provocation and contributory negligence are two of the most commonly raised defences. In the reported case of Neeson v Acheson  NIQB 12 the Plaintiff had her damages for minor physical injuries to the face plus a psychological adjustment reaction reduced by one third for the foolish action (while intoxicated) of putting her face close to the dog.
The most common injuries are bites to the face, legs and arms. Facial injuries can cause disfigurement which can be particularly devastating in the case of children. Psychological reactions are also common.
The value of claims arising from dog bites will of course vary but it is worth highlighting that damages for scarring in Northern Ireland are significantly higher than in England and Wales. The current guidelines for the assessment of general damages in personal injuries cases in Northern Ireland (the ‘Green Book’, last updated in 2019) suggests awards of up to £7,000.00 for trivial scarring in males, with the damages band for severe facial scars for males particularly those under 30 starting at £75,000.00 and going up to £220,000.00, with the same range for females going up to £275,000.00. The Green Book is treated as guidance only in Northern Ireland, and the Courts can and do move away from that guidance.
In our experience dog bites can be highly emotive not only for the injured party and their family but also for the dog owner, whose often beloved family pet has been involved. As highlighted above, they can also be expensive. These cases therefore require sensitive handling but there also must be early and thorough investigation to determine in the first instance if there is insurance cover in place and if so, if a successful defence can be raised and/or if the claim for damages can be limited.
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