According to data collected from the Center for Disease Control, about 41,149 people self-terminated in 2013. It is the tenth leading cause of death for all age groups in America and, unfortunately, the rate of suicide has been increasing in the last decade. As highly improbable as it may seem, if your dog attacks someone who was trying to commit suicide, are you still liable for damages if the family of the deceased sues you for wrongful death? It depends on the circumstances of the attack.
Wrongful Death Criteria
It's mostly likely the family of the deceased will attempt to sue you for the loss of their loved one using the wrongful death tort. Whether you can be held liable for the person's death depends on how successfully the family proves the following three elements:
- You owed a duty of care to the deceased person
- You breached that duty of care
- That breach was the cause of the person's death
The family will probably use dog bite laws to establish your duty of care and to show you breached your duty of care. For example, some states have strict liability laws that hold the dog owner responsible for a dog attack regardless of the circumstances as long as the victim was somewhere they were allowed to be legally and they didn't do anything to provoke the dog.
For instance, a person is standing by a bridge. Without provocation, your dog attacks the individual and causes fatal harm. Later, a suicide note is found in the person's home indicating he or she planned to jump off a bridge. In spite of the person's intentions, you would still be held responsible for the individual's death because the person's frame of mind had no bearing on the dog attacking, the individual was in a place he or she was allowed to be, and the person didn't provoke your dog.
Provocation as a Defense
At the other end of the spectrum, provocation can be used as a defense against the accusation you breached the duty of care required as a dog owner. All states with dog bite laws recognize provocation as a defense in civil and criminal cases. If you can show the decedent did something to incite the dog into reacting aggressively, then the court may decide in your favor.
A person enters your yard, rushes over to your dog, and begins hitting it, for example. The dog retaliates by biting the person in the throat. In this case, the decedent will most likely be found culpable for his or her own death. However, the person's suicidal intention may cause a judge to rule at least partly in the plaintiff's favor if you knew or had reason to know the decedent intended to commit suicide by dog attack and you didn't do anything to prevent that from happening. Depending on the circumstances, the family of the deceased person could argue your foreknowledge created a duty on your part to prevent access to the animal.
Additionally, be aware that when evoking the provocation defense the judge or jury will measure your pet's reaction against a "reasonable dog" standard. This means the court will consider whether the average dog would react in the same way in a similar situation. This is mostly an issue is situations where it's unclear whether the person's behavior was truly provocative.
For instance, standing still in the yard doesn't quite rise to the same level of provocation as throwing stones at the dog. If the dog reacted violently to the individual's mere presence, the court may come to conclusion the dog was overly sensitive and you at least partially liable for the incident for not adequately securing the dog.
As unlikely as it may seem that someone would provoke your dog into fatally attacking him or her as a way of committing suicide, stranger things have happened in the world. If you find yourself in a situation where your dog has mauled someone to death and the circumstances of the incident seem questionable, it's a good idea to consult with a personal injury attorney from a firm like Dunnigan & Messier P.C. about the legal ramifications of the case.