Dog Bite Settlement Hearings in Pennsylvania
Dog bite cases result in settlements ranging from a few thousand dollars to five-, six-, and even seven figures. The main factor is the level of injury suffered by the plaintiff. In addition, settlements factor in the impact on the victim’s overall life and well-being. In rare cases, punitive damages apply due to outrageous actions by the defendant.
Dog bite settlement hearings are the final step to completing a settlement agreement. They provide a forum for the court to determine if the settlement provides fair compensation and adheres to Pennsylvania personal injury law.
What Happens at Dog Bite Settlement Hearings in Pennsylvania?
Filing a complaint in Pennsylvania court creates a lawsuit that the judge must resolve. The court completes cases through dismissals, settlement hearings, or trials. All cases must be formally resolved before removal from the docket.
Settlement hearings represent the final step before a settled case is officially closed.
Before the hearing, the parties agree to a settlement of all claims related to the incident. For example, dog bite wounds occur at a certain date and time. It may be one bite or a prolonged attack involving injuries to multiple body parts. A settlement of that claim legally resolves the case stemming from that attack.
For example, a neighbor’s dog may have attacked the plaintiff between 1:45 and 1:50 PM on a specified date. During this time, the dog bit the person multiple times while the victim tried to fend off the animal and run away. The dog foiled the plaintiff's attempts to halt the attack for several minutes until the victim picked up a large stick and hit the dog, driving it away.
All the damages from this incident must be covered in the settlement agreement. Since the agreement is final, it must compensate the victim for all past and future related damages. For example, if the plaintiff is expected to need post-settlement medical treatment, the compensation must include a provision for the expected costs.
The settlement does not cover future incidents unless they are specified in the agreement. For example, if a person was attacked by the same dog after the settlement, then a new lawsuit can ensue. The settlement releases all claims based on one incident but leaves open the possibility of additional litigation against the defendant for other injuries.
A settlement hearing requires the parties to have reached an agreement beforehand. The hearing is the time for the judge to review the settlement and determine if it meets the criteria for court approval. Since attorneys negotiate settlements around the legal criteria for court approval, most settlement hearings result in the court’s blessing and the dismissal of the case, provided the defense abides by the terms.
However, the court does not serve as a rubber stamp for settlement agreements. The judge carefully reviews the terms. She must ensure that the agreement is fair and within the bounds of the law. An agreement that violates Pennsylvania statutes cannot be approved.
In addition, a settlement that seems unequal bears scrutiny and a possible refusal by the judge. In that case, the parties must amend the agreement to meet the standards imposed by the court.
If the court finds the agreement acceptable, it approves the settlement and dismisses the case.
The Settlement Process in Pennsylvania
Many hours of work go into most settlements before they reach the settlement hearing stage. The hearing is a culmination of discovery, negotiation, and sometimes trials and appeals.
Some cases settle before the plaintiff files a complaint. No settlement hearing is needed when this is the case because the case has yet to be activated. Instead, the parties hash out a compromise, and the signatures of the parties on the agreement and the delivery of compensation seal the deal.
Claims that settle at this stage are usually small value cases that the insurer wants to avoid spending money defending. Insurers tend to keep offers for larger claims on the low side during the initial stages in hopes of forcing the defendant to accept a small amount.
For example, a dog bite claim for $5,000 for medical bills, minor pain, and inconvenience may settle out of court without the need to file a complaint.
Settlements During Discovery
Discovery follows the complaint. This process allows both sides to discover the other side's evidence and use legal powers to gather additional proof of its position.
Many cases settle during the discovery phase. Often, the discovery process induces one or both sides to conclude that a settlement is in their interests. As long as the parties are relatively close in terms of compensation, there is an excellent chance of a settlement during discovery.
Requests for the Production of Documents
Each party has the right to demand the production of relevant documents from the other side. Attorneys usually mail each other a list of the required records. For example, the defense may request medical records, and the plaintiff may seek documents showing the dog's history of biting.
Attorneys may also seek other forms of evidence during discovery, such as smartphone videos or photos.
Requests for Admissions
The plaintiff tells their story in the complaint. While the complaint won’t include every detail of the incident, it will explain the main events and legal basis for the action. The defense then responds in the answer. The answer outlines the defense and its basis.
Though the sides may disagree on some material facts and legal arguments, there may be parts of the incident that they agree occurred. For instance, the defense may agree that the plaintiff was in her yard but deny that the dog bit her. In that case, the two sides can stipulate that the plaintiff was in the defendant’s yard, though they tell different stories of what happened next.
These stipulations, called requests for admissions, clarify the facts and narrow the dispute. This allows lawyers to focus on areas of disagreement. Often, this facilitates a more efficient settlement negotiation.
Before depositions (in-person questioning of opposing witnesses), lawyers prepare interrogatories. Interrogatories are written questions that the witnesses must answer under oath. These serve as a precursor for depositions. Often, when witnesses are reluctant to provide testimony, a settlement occurs before or after interrogatories.
The discovery process culminates with depositions. During depositions, witnesses must answer opposing counsel’s questions under oath and on a stenographic record. This makes it difficult for witnesses to alter their stories at trial. As a result, they serve a reliable indicator of the likely results of a trial.
Because of this, dispositions often open the door to settlements. With a solid idea of how the case will go, lawyers can narrow their areas of disagreement further. For instance, if it is plain from discovery evidence that a dog bite occurred, the defense will be inclined to settle. If the only issue holding up an agreement is the amount of medical damages, the sides can focus on negotiating the size of compensation for medical costs.
When the case settles during the discovery phase, the attorneys for each side must present the agreement to the court. However, when discovery fails to produce an agreement, the court may require the parties to attend a settlement conference.
Judges order settlement conferences for cases where the parties struggle to find common ground. Since the attorneys have been unable to form a consensus, the case may need to go to trial.
However, trials should occur only when there is a disagreement about a material fact, not because of a disagreement about damage amounts. For example, if the sides disagree about whether the defendant’s dog bit the plaintiff, a jury may be needed to decide who to believe. However, if each side agrees the bite occurred but not on damages, a settlement conference may resolve the case.
The judge often sets the terms of the conference and convinces the parties that a settlement makes sense. In that case, the court saves the ample time needed for a jury trial.
Settlements After Trial
It may seem like a settlement hearing wouldn’t be necessary for trial cases; however, personal injury claims can settle at any time during the litigation process. For instance, the sides may forge an agreement during the trial. In that case, the judge would hold a settlement hearing to approve the agreement before dismissing the case.
On the other hand, the sides may settle after the trial. The appeals process is arduous and expensive. It costs both sides substantial money and time. The winner of the claim may wish to forgo this investment if it feels the loser has a strong shot of winning an appeal. For a concession, the winner avoids a lengthy process and possible ultimate loss.
In that case, the court schedules a settlement hearing to approve the agreement.
Fairness of the Agreement
To determine if the agreement is fair, the court must consider the settlement amount for each compensable harm and whether it falls within reasonable bounds. Courts look at the amount paid for each of the following harms:
- Medical bills
- Lost income
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of enjoyment of life
- Emotional distress
- Loss of consortium
- Punitive damages
Courts rarely award punitive damages in personal injury cases. For them to apply, the defendant must have committed a wrong beyond a normal accident. For example, a dog owner that trained pit bulls to bite people might face punitive damages.
Dog bites often cause horrific and scarring injuries. Many victims need extensive medical treatment, rehabilitative therapy, and ongoing care. For instance, a victim whose face was marred by a big bite may need multiple plastic surgeries.
No one should suffer because of another person’s neglect in controlling their animal. Some dogs are dangerous, and many dogs without a violent history bite for mysterious reasons. As a result, owners must take care to protect the public by keeping dogs on leashes, fencing them inside yards, and ensuring they do not roam the streets unsupervised where they may encounter an innocent person and bite them through misunderstanding or malice.
Contact Mattiacci Law for an evaluation of your dog bite claim.
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