Early Monday morning, West Valley City police stopped a suspicious car. According to an article featured on KUTV.com, the vehicle was identified by the police as stolen. When the car sped away, police followed in pursuit. Eventually, the chase led the men into a residential area. The two men came to an abrupt stop and ran away on foot. The suspects hopped fences trying to escape. The police called in the K-9 unit to find the suspects. As the K-9 unit tracked the suspects, one of the men was bitten by one of the dogs. He was later taken to the hospital to deal with the injury; he will then be booked into jail. Police are unsure if the two men are fugitives.
This situation is not usually the kind of thing that our blog would cover; however, the fact that the man was bitten by a police dog presents interesting personal injury questions concerning dog bites and your rights. For example, what if you are bitten by a police dog? Can you sue the police department? One would hope these questions would be cut and dried; however, the law is not always entirely clear, and where there is specific mention of certain circumstances, there are almost always exceptions. We’ll show you what we mean.
Utah is considered a strict liability state when it comes to dog bites. Utah Code states, “Every person owning or keeping a dog is liable in damages for injury committed by the dog, and it is not necessary in the action brought therefor to allege or prove that the dog was of a vicious or mischievous disposition or that the owner or keeper of the dog knew that it was vicious or mischievous.” This means that if a dog bites you, the owner is almost always responsible, even if the dog has not previously bitten someone.
However, even though Utah is considered a strict liability state, there are exceptions to this rule. Following the Code listed above is an exemption noted in section 2 which indicates that the dog’s owner will not be held responsible if “the injury occurs while the dog is reasonably and carefully being used in the apprehension, arrest, or location of a suspected offender or in maintaining or controlling the public order.” In this exception, if the dog is assisting a police officer, as in the news story shared above, the victim of the bite cannot file a suit.
So, to get back to the question we posed earlier, what does this mean for you? Is this exception absolute? Let’s answer with two hypotheticals. Let’s imagine that you are walking down the street and a police officer happens to be out letting Fido, the city police dog, stretch his legs and walk around. As you walk down the sidewalk, you pass by Fido when he suddenly lunges at you and bites you. Now, police dogs are usually extraordinarily well-trained, so the chances of this happening are slim, but if it did, would you be able to file a lawsuit against the police department for damages. Perhaps the dog wasn’t adequately trained, or the training did not stick with the dog. Theoretically, the answer is yes. Because you were injured and the police officer was not being used in the “apprehension, arrest, or location of a suspected offender or maintaining…public order.”
Now, we can make it a little messier. Imagine the policeman and K-9 dog are in pursuit of a suspect, and you are just a passerby who happens to be in the area where they are pursuing the alleged criminal. But, for whatever reason, the policeman does not warn you or tell you to clear the space. As you are leaving, the dog bites you. In this situation, who is at fault is a little less clear. This type of case would depend on why you were in the area, why the police officer did not warn you to clear the space, why you came so close to the dog for it to be able to bite you, etc. This would be a circumstance where you would definitely want to speak with an attorney and speak with him/her about the specific details.
Ultimately, these hypotheticals are probably pretty rare compared to the overall number of dog bites that happen per year. We cannot overemphasize the importance of speaking with an attorney if you have been the victim of a dog bite injury. As evidenced by the hypotheticals shared above, a dog bite injury and who is responsible can vary depending on the context. Dog bites are quite severe, and at The Advocates, we will do everything we can to help you. Discussing your case with an attorney can be very helpful in understanding your rights and what course of action you can take.