California Dog Bite Laws

You’ve probably found us because you or a loved one has been bitten or attacked by a dog.  When people are injured in dog bite attacks, the natural thought process is to wonder about their legal rights and options.  You’re doing the right thing by doing your research.  You’ll find the answers to your questions here. Given the high number of California dog bite attacks, there are California laws in place that deal with these situations.  According to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, more than 38,000 people reported to emergency rooms in California because of dog bites in 2015 alone.  That number has been trending steadily upward for several years.

Below you’ll find an overview of California dog bite laws so that you can add some context to your troubling situation.

California Dog Bite Lawsuits – Civil Court Standards

If someone is injured in a California dog bite attack and files a lawsuit in response, that person must prove the following, according to the state’s jury instructions:

  1. The defendant owned the dog that allegedly bit the plaintiff.
  2. The dog bit the plaintiff when the plaintiff was in a public place or lawfully on private property.
  3. The plaintiff suffered harm.
  4. The defendant’s dog was a substantial factor in causing that harm.

If the person who has been injured in a dog bite case proves all of those elements, it’s possible that he or she will recover monetary damages.

California Dog Bite Laws – Strict Liability

California is what is known as a “strict liability” state.  That means that an injured person does not need to prove that the dog’s owner acted negligently in order to recover damages for harm suffered.  In essence, if a person owns the dog and the dog bites someone absent some exceptions, that dog owner will likely be liable for damages:

  • Whether or not the dog had bitten someone in the past
  • Whether or not the owner took reasonable precautions to prevent dog bites
  • Whether or not the owner had any reason to believe that the dog could be dangerous

The owner of the dog becomes liable for dog bite injuries the moment he or she takes ownership of that dog, with the following exceptions:

  • The dog bite victim was trespassing at the time of the attack.
  • The dog bite attack victim provoked the dog.
  • The person was injured by his or her employer’s dog while on the job.
  • The victim was performing a paid service when he or she was injured.

Every California dog bite attack situation is different.  As such, different norms and standards may apply to a particular situation, and different exceptions could as well.  Those interested in reviewing the entire strict liability statute regarding California dog bites can find it here.

The Importance of Dog Classifications in California Dog Bite Cases

Many California dog bite attacks involve dogs that have bitten people before.  If that is what’s happened to you, it could lead to criminal liability for the owner of the dog if that dog has a past that’s part of the public record.  According to California statutes:

  • Potentially dangerous – A dog can be classified as potentially dangerous if it has attacked a person or another animal twice within a three-year period or it’s bitten someone once and caused minor injuries.  A link to the full statute can be found here.
  • Vicious – If a dog has ever severely injured or killed someone even once or attacked another animal or person more than twice during the previous three years, that dog may be classified as vicious.  A link to the specific statute can be found here.

These classifications could be relevant in one of two ways.  First, if you are injured by a dog that is classified as either potentially dangerous or vicious and the owner did not take the precautions required by law, it could lead to criminal charges against that dog owner.  Secondly, if you are injured by a potentially dangerous or vicious dog, it could lead to remedies brought by local animal control authorities against the dog. With regard to a civil case claim, if an owner was aware of the dog’s potentially dangerous or vicious nature and chose not to do anything about it to keep others safe then it could pose stronger liability against the owner.

Additional Dog Attack Liability Theories

As discussed below under “Top 3 Dog Bite Defenses,” there are several situations where a dog bite attack victim may not be able to recover under California dog bite laws. However, even in cases where a defense might be asserted, a competent lawyer may use other legal theories that can hold the owner of a dog responsible for a dog attack victim’s injuries. Based on the unique facts of each case, the guidance of experienced California dog bite attorneys is essential in presenting the strongest legal claims available. A few additional theories are discussed below:

  • Negligence – A dog keeper or owner can also be held liable for dog bite injuries if the keeper or owner is careless in the handling of the dog at the time of the dog attack. If the person attacked and injured by the dog can show that the handler or owner was not reasonably careful in controlling or handling the dog and that their injuries were the result of the keeper or owner’s unreasonable care. A negligence cause of action doesn’t require proving the vicious tendencies of the dog. The most important and key factor is the owner or keeper’s unsuccessful control of their dog.

***Even dogs that appear to normally be mild or calm can be dangerous depending on the circumstances. Case and point: if a keeper or owner does not have a leash on their pet in a public setting, such as a park, and the dog jumps on someone and injures them, the keeper or owner would be negligent under the law.

  • Negligence Per Se – Under the law, “Negligence per se” means that a keeper or owner is consequentially assumed to be responsible for injuries of a dog bite attack victim if a local animal control law or “leash law,” isn’t followed and the violation is the cause of the dog bite attack injuries. If the dog keeper or owner can’t justify not following the law, then they are responsible and there is no need to prove that the keeper or owner was negligent in their control of the dog.
  • Common-Law Liability – The key factor in determining common law liability is predicated on the knowledge of the dog owner regarding the dangerousness of the animal. To prove this form of liability, prior vicious behavior or bites by the dog must be shown and the keeper or owner must have known about it.  The “one-free-bite rule”, which is the law in many states, is similar to common law liability. California’s law has basically replaced this common-law action as applied to dog owners, but common law is very useful if the facts of the case fit the knowledge of the dog owner regarding the dangerousness of the dog.

Top 3 California Dog Bite Law Defenses

Under certain circumstances, even though California Dog Bite Laws states that a dog owner is strictly liable for the injuries caused in a dog bite attack, the keeper or owner, the landlord, and others can assert defenses in an attempt to avoid liability. When these situations arise it is imperative you are represented by an attorney that familiar with dog bite attacks to ensure that the defenses raised do not spoil your case. Below are several defenses a defendant may use to avoid liability:

#1 – Trespassing

The trespassing defense claims that the victim was trespassing or not lawfully on the dog owner’s private property, which removes liability under the strict liability, if true.  California’s strict liability law only applies if the victim is lawfully in a private place at the time of the attack or in a public place.

A person who is trespassing would have to pursue legal theories such as common law or negligence (discussed above). However, a person legally on private property such as an invited social guest, a mail carrier, or emergency service personnel is not generally considered trespassers (i.e. walking up a driveway or ringing the doorbell). That said, a guest must still follow the rules given by the property, such as “stay out of the side yard.”

#2 – A Dog Attack, But Not a Bite

Although under California dog bite law an injury must be caused by the action of a dog bite, the skin does not have to be broken. Case in point, a dog owner is still liable if the attack victim is bruised or suffered nerve damage even without puncture wounds. Where non-bite injuries occur after a dog jumps on or knocks over someone, the dog owner isn’t responsible under strict liability, but may be responsible by other dog bite law theories of recovery, such as negligence (discussed above).

#3 – Assumption of the Risk

What happened prior to an attack is significant in determining whether a dog owner will be held liable. A dog owner may not liable if the attack victim provoked the animal. The important facts are whether the person was bitten or attacked had the requisite knowledge and appreciation of the danger and a voluntary acceptance of the risk of being bitten by the dog and chose to act in a way that provoked the dog anyway.

***The assumption of risk defense also comes into play when someone assumes control or possession of the dog, i.e. trainers, kennel staff, house sitters, groomers, handlers, veterinarians, and their support staff assume the risk of being bitten while treating a dog in their possession and control.

California Dog Bite Laws and How They Apply To You

No one wants to see people injured in dog bite attacks.  We are a culture that loves dogs, who are affectionally known as “man’s best friend.”  Unfortunately, these situations do arise, and as a result, more than 100 people in California go to the hospital every day for dog bite attacks.  If you or someone you love has been harmed in this type of attack, you need to take action to protect your legal rights and options (including scarring remediation, plastic surgery, and surgical repair of muscle tears, ligaments, and tendons).  Doing so will not only help you recover from your losses, but it could also prevent others from being seriously injured or even killed in the future.

If you’re unsure how you should proceed, you can start by seeking the help of an experienced Orange County Dog Bite Lawyer who has been standing up for the rights of those wrongfully injured for years.  Contact the Dog Bite Law Group today to schedule a free initial consultation.