Question: On May 24 of this year, the postman delivered my mail as usual. A neighbor's daughter was at my house, and when my dog barked she opened the door. The dog ran at the postman but did not bite him. I went outside and talked to him and asked if my dog had bitten him. He said, "No." I asked him to let me see. So he pulled up his pant leg and rolled down his sock, and there wasn't a scratch on him. I didn't hear from anyone until July or August, at which time I received a letter. I called but heard nothing more until I received this letter, a copy of which is enclosed. The Department of Animal Registration never called or came to post a quarantine on my dog. Can they do this to me?--R.W.
Answer: The "this" to which R.W. refers is a form letter from the U.S. Postal Service's Injury Compensation Control Office referring to the May 24 incident and claiming that the postman was bitten. The letter also points out that "under Section 3342 of the California Civil Code, the owner of the dog is liable for the damages incurred."
And, of course, here's the key paragraph: "As there seems to be no question of liability, we thus proceed to the question of what are reasonable compensatory damages for the claim. We feel that a very reasonable value of our claim is $300."
This letter states that $73.60 of the $300 is for medical expenses with the remainder allocated to general damages, that is, pain and suffering. The postman didn't miss work, so there were no lost wages involved.
Now, back to your question: Can they do this to you? As far as it's gone, they obviously can. They've written you a letter demanding $300. Just as obviously too, the owner of a dog in California that inflicts injuries or damages to another person is liable for the dog's action. But no one, the Postal Service included, can force anyone to pay $300 on the strength of a letter alone. The bone of contention here is simple enough: The Postal Service says your dog bit its carrier; you and your neighbor's daughter say it didn't. The dog, we assume, denies everything.
According to Dave Mazer, the Postal Service's public information officer, a check of your file indicates that the carrier did visit a doctor and that the doctor reported lacerations and blood present on his right calf. The matter wouldn't have been pursued, Mazer adds, unless the carrier had gone to a doctor.
Your position is that the carrier, at the time of the incident, said there had been no bite, and an inspection of his ankle bore this out. The only conclusion is that during the trauma of the attack (no one is denying that there was an attack, of course), the carrier didn't know that he had been bitten until he got back to the postal station and took a closer look.
But, as far as you are concerned--in view of what happened on May 24--all of this is hearsay and the central, debatable question remains: Was there a bite or wasn't there? And with this question hanging there unanswered, Ed Feldman, an attorney for the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, is the first to advise you that, no, you should not pay the $300 and roll over and play dead.
Contests the Claim
"She should write a letter back to the Injury Compensation Control Office saying she contests the claim and offering to negotiate it. Under our rules, we can't even get involved in these things," Feldman adds, "unless some payment, some loss, is involved--doctor's bills, lost time or something like that. It would seem odd that the carrier would go to a doctor if there weren't a bite of some kind. When we get the letter disputing the claim, it then goes through the review conduit, and we decide whether it's worth fighting or not. Frankly, I wouldn't even file a claim for as little as $300. The individual carrier, however, can then go ahead and file a case himself in Small Claims Court. Or he can transfer it to us and we'll pursue it on his behalf, if we think it's warranted. Occasionally, if it's a major case, we'll file it in federal court--but we're talking about a really serious injury here."
But have no doubts about it: Dog bites are a very, very serious business with the Postal Service.
As Mazer, the department's public information officer here, says: "We started this Third Party Recovery Program about three years ago in order to recover the costs of medical fees, loss of wages, the expenses of substitute carriers and to compensate the carriers for pain and suffering. But, mainly, it was to alert the public to the dangers of delivering mail to homes where there are dogs without supervision.
"There doesn't even have to be an injury involved," Mazer adds. "We've had carriers so traumatized by a dog's attack that they simply refuse to carry the mail again."