It's not unusual for law enforcement officers to use dogs to help them apprehend suspects. Unfortunately, it's also not unusual for people targeted by police dogs to sustain serious—and sometimes fatal—injuries as a result of either the bite and hold technique used by these animals to immobilize individuals or more generalized attacks. If you or someone you know were injured by a K-9 unit, here's what you need to know about collecting compensation for damages and losses.
Who's Eligible to Receive Compensation?
Whether or not you are eligible to receive compensation for being injured by a police dog depends on the circumstances of your interaction with the animal. Innocent bystanders are the most likely to prevail in personal injury lawsuits against liable parties. This group includes people who were randomly attacked by the dog for no apparent reason as well as those who may have been wrongly targeted for arrest by the police.
For instance, California law states the government is liable for injuries if the person attacked did not participate in or was not party to the activity that required the use of the dog. So if a police officer commands the dog to latch onto someone who he mistakenly believed committed a crime but the person actually didn't, the city or county could be held liable for the victim's injuries. For example, the city council in St. Paul, Minnesota, paid a victim $65,000 after he was bitten by the police dog when officers mistook him for a suspect who had fled earlier.
Unfortunately, the answer isn't as clear when it comes to criminal suspects. Police, and by extension, police dogs, are afforded a certain amount of immunity when it comes to injuries they may inflict while trying to arrest someone. If the dog acted to protect itself, its handler or a third party, or it was reasonable for the police to use the dog in a particular situation (e.g. the perpetrator had a gun), then the injured party is unlikely to win his or her court case.
However, a victim of a police dog bite may successfully sue for damages if the officer mishandled the dog or the use of the dog amounted to excessive force. For example, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, allowed a civil rights case to proceed to a jury trial after it determined a reasonable jury would conclude the officer maliciously used his K-9 companion to purposefully cause injury to multiple victims.
In these cases, though, you must prove the officer's actions went above and beyond what the average person would consider reasonable, and this is sometimes hard to do.
The Process of Suing for Injuries
Suing the police for injuries caused by a police dog is not the same as suing a civilian for injuries caused by a regular dog. For starters, if a victim is injured while the dog was operating in its official capacity, then claims must be brought to court as violations of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Victims can only file a regular civil claim in cases where they were injured when the dog was "off duty".
Before you can get to court, however, many cities require victims to file tort claims with the appropriate department or agency. This is essentially a demand letter outlining the claim and request for compensation. Once the agency receives the letter, it has a certain amount of time to respond, which varies from state to state. If the agency rejects your claim or fails to respond within the established time period, then you can file a lawsuit for in civil court.
Litigating a personal injury case against a law enforcement agency for injuries caused by a police dog is often complex and challenging because there is a presumption the plaintiff must overcome that the officer (and dog) acted reasonably. Working with personal injury lawyers who have experience handling lawsuits against the government can increase your chances of winning or settling your case.