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Dog Mauls 3 Year Old At A Texas Restaurant: Legal Lessons

A three year old child was the victim of a pit bull attack on January 9th in the Spring, Texas restaurant, Loose Caboose. The poor girl needed multiple stitches on her face, and will likely need plastic surgery to address the wounds. The dog owner, reported to be, Jennifer Romano, fled the scene. Fortunately, relying on tips and license plate information from the scene, police were able to track the owner down.

This tragic situation can serve as a primer of many of the legal issues that we see in dog attack cases.

  1. Who might be sued here? And who might pay a recovery?

Certainly, the dog owner is the first person that people generally think about when trying to figure out who to sue. That’s an easy one. But the bigger question is whether the girl’s family could collect a recovery from the dog owner. Typically, when we sue dog owners in dog attack cases, we can only recover if the dog owner had homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Usually, if the defendant doesn’t have insurance, then they are protected by Texas’s debtor-friendly laws that protect much of a person’s property from recovery. But if there is insurance that covers the claim, that is the first and easiest source of recovery.

Second, there may be a claim against the restaurant. If a place of business is allowing people to bring dangerous dogs onto the property, then business may end up being liable for harm caused by the dogs. However, even if there isn’t a liability claim — we can’t prove that the restaurant did anything wrong to contribute to the wreck — most businesses have medical payments coverage as part of their insurance policies. Medical payments coverage will pay for some medical expenses — up to the limit of coverage purchased — when an event happens of the business premises, regardless of fault. That means that even if the restaurant didn’t do anything wrong, their insurance coverage will help pay for the girl’s medical expenses.

2. How Long Will The Claim Take?

Potential clients often ask how long it’s going to take to make a recovery. In any type of case, we advise clients that we almost always don’t want to settle a case until the client is healed or is close to healed as the client is going to get. So a big part of answering “how long will the case take” depends on how long it takes for the client to heal.

One aspect of that healing in dog attack cases is figuring out what, if any, scarring issues will be present. Dog attack cases can take longer than many cases when we have to wait to see what scarring occurs. For children, if there is potential scarring, we usually wait around a year to see how scars heal to make a decision about whether (and what extent) plastic surgery will be necessary. It’s only after we wait that time that we know enough to start having settlement discussions with the insurance adjuster.

3) When a kid is hurt, where does the money go?

When someone under 18 is hurt, the settlements and recoveries are treate differently than most other claims. Generally, parents are responsible for getting medical care for their children, so some of the settlement proceeds go to parents to reimburse the parents for the medical expenses the parents paid.

But other than that, most settlement funds belong to the kid. Because courts want to protect kids, money due children is treated differently than other types of recovery. First, the money can be put in the registry of the court until the child turns 18. With that, the court holds onto the money. When the child turns 18, the child can start the process to withdraw money from the registry so that the child gets the full amount of the money shortly after turning 18.

There are a number of reasons when that might not be the best idea. First, many parents know that if their child got a big check on the child’s 18th birthday, that the money will be gone by the child’s 19th birthday (or even 18 and 1/2 birthday). Second, the money earnes very little interest for the child.

As a result, what we typically advise our clients to use (assuming the settlement is large enough to justify it) is a structured settlement. With a structured settlement, the settlement funds are used to purchase an annuity that will start paying the child money after the child’s 18th birthday. There are two advantages. One, the annuity earns interest so the child is earning additional money through the investment.

But more importantly, a structured settlement can be used to make the payments on a payment schedule. And there are almost an infinite number of ways the payments can be set up. Some parents just want their child to get a payment on their birthday every year for several years. Other parents want to make the payments coincide with when college tuition would be due so they’ll get two payments a year for four years after the kid turns 18. There are just an infinite number of ways that a family can plan on having the money distributed to the child.

There are a lot more questions and issues that are raised in dog attack cases, but these are some issues that are a little unique to this situation. For additional information about dog attack claims, feel free to download our free ebook here or call us at (512)476-4944.

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