DerryNews.com, Derry, New Hampshire

July 11, 2013

About the Law: It's a dog bites dog world

About the Law
Andrew Myers

---- — My dog bit someone else’s dog when I was walking past their house. I agreed to pay vet bills. They sent three different bills and I paid all three.

Now, they’ve hired an attorney and they’re demanding much more. What should I do?

Call your homeowner’s insurance company. Most often, homeowners will cover such claims and provide a legal defense if required.

If not, hire an attorney to do two things. First, scrutinize the vet bills to assure that all charges in the bill in fact directly relate to the bite. Second, pay nothing for “pain and suffering” of the animal.

Under the law, animals are “chattel.” That means, in the eyes of the law, an animal is on the same level as an inanimate object like a rock. So, there is no pain and suffering. I know people don’t like it, but that’s the law.

The most important lesson here, never pay anyone for post-accident damages ever without getting a valid release. This terminates the claim forever with no going back. This is what insurance companies do and what a knowledgeable lawyer will do for you.

This column recently answered a question from someone who agreed to settle a case in mediation, and then tried to back out of the deal. But what about an email exchange between opposing parties who come to an agreement. Without a formal release, is this binding?

The federal courts recently confronted this issue. The plaintiff backed out of a deal to purchase a truck stop business after loan applications failed. He sued to reclaim his $250,000 deposit.

Buyer and seller went back and forth in emails and agreed to settlement terms. But, before the deal could be written up, a court receiver was appointed to take over the business and killed the deal.

The plaintiff purchaser brought a motion to enforce the settlement in federal court. He argued that Massachusetts law does not require a settlement agreement to be in writing or filed in court, that the electronic dialogue formed a binding contract.

Emails were once seen as informal. Paper snail-mail was the gold standard of legal communication. But, as one observer commented, if those days are not gone, they’re close to the dust bin of history.

Here, adversaries agreed by email to material terms. There was an offer and acceptance. Emails showed intent to formalize the deal, then the court case would be dismissed and funds released.

In Hansen v. Rhode Island’s Only 24 Hour Truck & Auto Plaza, decided June 7, 2013, the U.S. District Court in Boston upheld the fundamental principle that when parties agree to settle, even if the agreement is not reduced to a signed writing, the deal will be enforced as valid and binding.

---

Andrew Myers of Derry has law offices in Derry and North Andover. He is a member of the American Association for Justice and the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. Send questions to andrew@attorney-myers.com.