The legal cases all dog owners in South Africa should know about

Compensation for dog bite claims in South Africa can include payment for past and future medical costs, loss of earnings and general damages for pain and suffering, says specialist legal firm DSC Attorneys.

The firm notes that dog attacks resulting in serious injuries are not uncommon in the country as large dog breeds are popular, and many residents own dogs to guard against potential intruders.

“In South Africa, a dog attack can give rise to a claim on the basis of the ‘actio de pauperie’, against the dog’s owner. With this type of claim, the owner’s liability does not depend on actual negligence or intent to harm.”

The legal principle dating back to the Roman Law, known as the ‘actio de pauperie‘ holds that the owner of a domesticated animal is ordinarily held strictly liable for harm caused by that animal.

DSC Attorneys noted that for this claim to succeed, it must be established that:

  • The defendant (the person you’re claiming against) has ownership of the dog;
  • The dog is a domesticated animal;
  • The dog acted outside its nature (which, it’s assumed, doesn’t involve wanting to attack people); and
  • The dog caused harm to the person claiming.

The cases you should know about

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DSC Attorneys outlined some of the recent cases which show how dog bites can result in millions of rands in claims in South Africa.

R1.4 million

In 2021, Mohammed Essack of Howick West was attacked by a neighbour’s pit bull. The dog entered his property and attacked him, resulting in injuries that required hospitalisation.

Essak is currently claiming R1.4 million in damages. The case, brought before a Pietermaritzburg court in May 2021, was adjourned to a date to be arranged.

R2.4 million

In the 2020 case, Cloete v Van Meyeren, a man was attacked and seriously injured by three pit bull-type dogs on a public street. He claimed damages of R2,341,000 from the dogs’ owner.

The owner (the defendant) argued that the dogs were able to escape his property only because an intruder had left the gate to his property open. Normally, the gate was secured by a padlock.

The judge found in favour of the plaintiff – a ruling that reinforced the principle of the actio de pauperie.

The legal ruling provides that “the owner of a dog that attacks a person who was lawfully at the place where he was injured, and who neither provoked the attack nor by his negligence contributed to his own injury, is liable, as owner, to make good the resulting damage”.

R4 million

In 2020, the victim of a dog attack lost an arm from the elbow down. A personal liability insurance claim was settled out of court for a little over R4 million.

What affects compensation in dog bite claims in South Africa?

Per the concept of the actio de pauperie, negligence by the dog’s owner is not a prerequisite for a successful claim.

Nonetheless, a claim is more likely to succeed if there’s evidence of negligence by the owner. Examples are failing to repair a gate that won’t close or a gap in fencing or letting a dog off its leash in a public area.

The behaviour of the person attacked may also be relevant. For example, was the plaintiff attacked after illegally entering the dog owner’s property? Also, did the plaintiff provoke the dog?

Like other types of personal injury claims, dog bite claims can be complex. Even if a dog attack occurred on the owner’s property, the owner could be found liable.

Other factors that will likely affect compensation in a dog bite claim are:

  • Medical costs associated with the injuries;
  • Loss of earnings due to the injuries;
  • The severity and likely long-term consequences of the injuries sustained; and
  • The age of the plaintiff.

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