Car Window Dog Bites

Approximately 800,000 people seek medical treatment for dog bites each year in the United States.  Only rarely, however, are the circumstances close to what Deborah Reyes experienced.  Ms. Reyes was on her way into a convenience store in New York when a dog, in a car parked illegally next to the sidewalk, stuck its head out of the car window and bit Ms. Reyes on the right breast.  The injury and the lawsuit that followed raised a rare question of law that seems puzzling at first glance: was Ms. Reyes injured by a dog, or by a car?

The insurance company for the dog owner and the car paid out its policy in full, but Ms. Reyes claimed that the amount paid was not adequate to compensate her for her injury.  She turned to her car insurance company, Allstate, which refused to pay, arguing that she was not injured by a car.

The trial court disagreed with Allstate, noting that in fact, the car did cause Reyes’ injuries, and therefore her insurance policy could not deny coverage.  The court supported this conclusion with its observation of a couple key facts.  First, the driver of the car parked it illegally and left the car window open wide enough for the dog to reach out of the car.  Second, the dog could never have bitten Deborah Reyes if the owner had not used the car to transport the dog and place it within biting distance of sidewalk pedestrians.

How might this case have turned out in Florida?

In a previous post, we discussed the distinction between economic damages (like lost wages and medical bills) and non-economic damages (like pain and suffering).   Florida law requires every driver to carry car insurance, and limits recovery of economic damages to the value of the insurance policy.  One can sue only for certain non-economic damages, which the Florida statute lists as the following:

  • Significant and permanent loss of an important bodily function
  • Permanent injury within a reasonable degree of medical probability, other than scarring or disfigurement
  • Significant and permanent scarring or disfigurement
  • Death

Therefore, under Florida law, it looks like Deborah Reyes would be limited to the dog owner’s car insurance coverage unless her dog bite injuries were quite severe.

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