According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre,for the year 2012-13 around one in sixof the 6,450 hospital admissions for dog bites in the UK were children under the age of 10.[i] Of those children who attended hospital, 47% required a referral to a plastic surgeon. With such a high rate of dog attacks on children it is important that dog owners and parents are aware of the law that applies to dog attacks on children.
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991
Where a dog is dangerously out of control in a public place or a place where it is not permitted to be then the owner has committed an offence under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (DDA) S3 [ii]. The out of control dog does not need to injure anyone for an offence to be committed, there only has to be a reasonable apprehension or fear that it may injure someone. Showing reasonable apprehension is difficult and the claim of negligence may be more suitable particularly if the attack has taken place in a private residence where the dog resides.
The Animals Act 1971 and Negligence
In cases where a child has been attacked on private property there are claims available under the Animals Act 1971, these are also strict liability claims.
The first of these claims can be used where a person has been attacked by a dangerous animal, the owner of the animal will be liable for any damage caused unless they can show that the claimant was wholly responsible or consented to the risk or was trespassing where the animal was reasonably kept for the purposes of defending the defendant’s property. The Animals Act refers to “dangerous” as an animal of a vicious nature not commonly bred in the UK, therefore where a child has been attacked by any dog classified as a dangerous breed under the DDA (for example a pitbull is an American breed and classified as a dangerous dog) they would be able to make a claim under S 2(1) of the Act.
The second claim that can be made under the Animals Act is where a person has been attacked by a non-dangerous animal. The majority of dogs attacks are deemed to be “non-dangerous” even Rottweilers and Staffordshire bull terriers which can be aggressive but are not defined under the DDA as dangerous dogs. In order for the defendant to be liable it must be shown under S 2(2) of the Animals Act that;
a) The animal was likely to cause the damage and/or that damage caused by the animal was likely to be severe and
b) The damage and its severity was due to the animal’s characteristics not usually found in animals of that species OR are not normally found in the species but caused by the animal being in a particular circumstance or at a particular time AND
c) These characteristics were known to the keeper of the animal or a member of their household
Parts a) and c) of the test are usually apparent on the facts of the case; where a dog especially a powerful one such as a Rottweiler, attacks a child it is likely to be severe and if a dog has acted aggressively around children it should have been known by the keeper of the dog. Note that the word “keeper” is wider than “owner” in the DDA and refers to anyone who has the animal in their possession, this may result in multiple defendants and even child defendants as a keeper can be under the age of 16 [iii]. Interpreting part b) can be difficult but case law has shown that where a dog has been known to act aggressively it is not necessary to show it had unusual characteristics for its species.[iv]
The defences available under S 2(2) the Animals Act include blaming then Claimant for acting unreasonably or consenting and also trespass. Alternatively, the defendant could argue part c) and prove that they had no knowledge of their dog ever acting in such an aggressive manner.
Finally a claim in common law negligence can be pursued especially where this is a dog’s first attack as dog owners have a duty of care to ensure the safety of others around their dog. It could be argued that a child attacked whilst unsupervised in the presence of a dog is an act of negligence.However, this is not an easy claim to mount as the attack still has to be reasonably foreseeable and ultimately dogs are creatures with their own minds that sometimes act unpredictably.
How to make a claim on behalf of a child
For personal injury claims the time limit for making a claim is three years from the date of the incident or the date of knowledge in cases where an illness has developed over time. However for children under the age of 18 the date of knowledge begins from their 18th birthday [v]. After the 18th birthday the claimant is an adult and can bring the claim themselves within three years. The only exception being where a child has been attacked by a dog in a deliberate assault, in such cases the claim must be made to the Criminal Injury Compensation Authority within a strict two year time limit.[vi]
Section 21.2 of the Civil Procedure Rules states that a child or person lacking capacity must have a litigation friend to conduct proceedings on their behalf in the court or one can be appointed for them by court order [vii]. The litigation friend does not necessarily need to be a parent but must be someone who is fair, competent, without any interests adverse to that of the child and they must undertake to pay the costs of making a claim.
The death of Jade Lomas Anderson in the most recent high profile dog attack and has made the public aware of the dangers dogs can pose to children. In Anderson’s case the dog owner served no jail time as there was not enough evidence to show manslaughter from gross negligence and no conviction under the DDA because the dogs were not of a dangerous breed, she may only face charges under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 [viii]. The vast majority of attacks will not end in death but can often cause deep scars both physical and psychological to the children involved. It is important therefore to be aware of the legal remedies available.