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If you or a loved one were bit by a dog you have a lot of unanswered questions.

  • Who owns the dog?
  • Who is responsible for my medical bills and injuries?
  • How do I make them pay?

California is a strict liability state when it comes to dog bites. Strict liability is a fancy legal term that means a dog owner is responsible for the injuries their dog causes, even if they didn’t do anything wrong. They are liable even if the dog had never bitten anyone before, was a nice dog, and no history of any aggressive behavior. California enacted this to “prevent dogs from being a hazard to the community.1

There are 4.5 pit bull bites californiamillion dog bites a year, with 885,000 bites requiring medical attention. Half of these are children.2 The majority of the time, the owner of the dog is a family, friend or neighbor of the victim.3

Whether you were bitten in the neighborhood, in a public place, or at work, knowing how to properly handle a dog bite case is critical to protecting your rights and receiving your rightful compensation for your injuries.

What is the California law on dog bites?

 

The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.4 This is known as strict liability. You do not have to prove negligence (although negligence is a way to prove liability, more on that later). This helps to reduce conflict and arguments, because you do not have to show wrongdoing by anyone. The owner is liable. Period.

Are there other ways to hold people responsible for dog bite injuries?

Under California law, you can prove scienter or negligence to make others responsible for your injuries.

Scienter is another fancy legal term meaning, prior knowledge of wrongdoing. If a dog has bitten someone before, and a person knows about it, the next the dog bites someone, they may be liable for scienter. “[T]he keeper of an animal of a species dangerous by nature, or of any animal which he knows, or has reason to know, to have dangerous propensities, is liable, without wrongful intent or negligence, for damage to others resulting from such a propensity.”5)

This is an old theory of liability that doesn’t apply in a lot of cases because Civil Code 3342 was enacted to abolish this theory. But it can still be useful if your case involves someone other than the owner of the dog (such as a caretaker, family member, roommate etc.)

Another theory of liability is negligence.6 Someone who possesses or harbors an animal which they do not know to be dangerous, is still liable if they are negligent in failing to prevent the harm.

If there is a bite, Civil Code 3342 is usually the best theory of liability. However, you should always plead scienter and negligence. Strict liability is strong, but narrow. There must be a bite, and you can only sue the owner. So let’s say the owner of the dog has no assets and there is no homeowner insurance (which usually covers dog bites). If someone else is also responsible, you may try to bring them into the case with one of these other theories. Also, if there wasn’t actually a bite, you can’t use Civil Code 3342.

Defenses to liability

There are exceptions dog owners can use to avoid liability. For example, if the person you are suing is not the dog’s owner, they are not liable. if you were trespassing onto private property the owner might escape liability.78 You must obviously prove which dog bit you. Another defense to CC 3342 is that there was no bite, since the statute specifically mentions bites in the text.

While the statute appears to impose strict liability on dog owners, California courts have allowed defenses based on provocation, comparative negligence and assumption of risk. Basically, if you provoked the dog, somehow negligently caused the attack, or assumed the risk of being bitten.9)

Statute of Limitations : How long do you have to sue?

The answer is, generally two years. Within two years: An action for assault, battery, or injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another.10

This is called a statute of limitations. In other words, the maximum time you have to file a lawsuit against the person who caused your injuries. In dog bite cases, you have two years from the date of the bite, to sue the other or anyone else responsible.

This is important, because once this time runs out, you can’t file a lawsuit anymore. That means, the other side can just ignore you forever as you have no recourse.

Government claims are different. First, you need to check the dog bite statute to be sure no immunity in the statute applies. Second, you have 6 months from the date of the accident to file a Government Claim. If they deny your claim, which they often do, you have 6 months from the date you receive the rejection to file a lawsuit. However, if the government never responds to your claims, you can file a lawsuit within 2 years of the date of accident.11

While 2 years seems like a long time, it goes by fast. So you should never wait to speak to a qualified car accident lawyer. Consultations are usually free, so there is no cost to speak to, or even hire an attorney.

Must all dogs be on a leash?

That depends on the city you live in, but most cities will have ordinances controlling dog leash law. For example, in San Diego if you are in the house, you must control your dog via voice or electronic containment system, or physically and humanely restrain them with a leash, fence or other enclosure.12

If you are walking your dog, or otherwise bringing her to a public or private property, the dog must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet.13

So what do we need to prove in court in order to win your case and be paid compensation for your injuries?

You must be able to prove the following at a minimum:

  • The true owner of the dog;
  • You were actually bit;
  • You were in a public place or lawfully in a private place, which could also be the property of the dog owner;
  • There was a bite, and it caused injury, suffering, loss and damage;
  • There are no exceptions or excuses the defendant can use;

If the person you are suing is not the owner, then you need to show they were negligent and this negligence caused the injury, or that the person kept or harbored the dog, and knew it previously bit someone or was so aggressive it would definitely bite someone one day.

How much is a dog bite case worth? How are damages calculated?

Each case is different, and even two cases with almost identical facts may have two different juries give two different amounts. But at a minimum you will receive what’s called special damages, or economic damages. These are hard expenses that are easily quantified, such as:

  • Medical expenses (emergency rooms, ambulance, doctors, prescriptions)
  • Lost earnings as a result (time off work)
  • Property damage caused by the dog bite
  • Future medical expenses, including cosmetic surgery for repairs to the injuries

Then there are general damages. These are also called non-economic damages and are comprised of very hard to define injures such as pain, suffering, inconvenience, depression, mental anguish, fear, anxiety, and so on and so forth. In order to maximize case value in this area, your story needs to be told to the jury. How did the injuries affect your life? Was it a behavior changing injury? Did it disrupt the relationship between you and your family, especially children and spouses? Is there scarring, especially in a visible area, like your face?

The average value of a dog bite case is $27,000.00 to $30,000.00 but as this is just an average, it has no bearing on the value of your case.14

Who actually pays for the injuries?

Technically, under the law, the owner of the dog is responsible for your injuries.15 So they are the ones legally obligated to pay. The problem is, up to 75% of dog bite victims are friends, family or neighbors to the dog owner.16 So victims often worry how they are going to be compensated, because they don’t want their family members and friends to feel the financial burden.

That’s where insurance comes into play. If the dog owner has home owners (and sometimes renter’s) insurance, dog bites are often covered under these policies. One third of all homeowner insurance claims involve dog bites.17 Please note some policies will exclude coverage for dog breeds considered dangerous.

So how do you find out if the dog owner has insurance? Simple. Ask them. Let them know, if they have homeowners or renters insurance then it will likely cover the dog bite injuries. If the dog owner is a business, they’ll likely have liability insurance and if they don’t, you can go after business assets if needed.

It is possible the dog owner may still lie to you about insurance (even though it’s in their best interests to reveal the insurance). Even if they deny having any insurance, don’t give up on your rights. An experienced attorney will have ways to discover insurance coverage if there is any, and/or if there are other people who may be responsible for your injuries.

Do you need a dog bite lawyer for your case?

Not always.  There are 850,000 dog bites a year requiring medical attention, and roughly 20,000 insurance claims a year, those cases where injuries are not severe can be handled without hiring lawyers and involving the insurance companies. Small cases can be handled between the parties, or even in small claims court.18

Even if you might not need an attorney for your case, it doesn’t hurt to speak with one, since most lawyers provide free consultation, and most dog bite lawyers will work on a contingency basis which means it does not cost you anything to hire the attorney.


  1. Davis v. Glaschler (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1392, 1399 

  2. http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/dog-bites/index.html 

  3. http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=90233 

  4. California Civil Code 3342http://law.onecle.com/california/civil/3342.html 

  5. Hillman v. Garcia-Ruby, 44 Cal.2d 625, 626 (1955 

  6. Drake v. Dean (1993) 15 Cal.App.4th 915, 924. 

  7. CC 3342(a) “…lawfully on private property” 

  8. Fullerton v. Conan (1948) 87 Cal.App.2d 354, 358 [197 P.2d 59] 

  9. Johnson v. McMahon (1998) 68 Cal.App. 4th 173, 176 

  10. California Civil Code 335.1 http://law.onecle.com/california/civil-procedure/335.1.html 

  11. Government Code 911.2 http://law.onecle.com/california/government/911.2.html 

  12. SDCC Section 62.669[b]; Penal Code Section 597t 

  13. SDCC Sections 62.669[a], 62.601[d], and 62.601[y] 

  14. http://www.iii.org/table-archive/20669 

  15. Civil Code 3342 

  16. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2094772/ 

  17. http://www.iii.org/issue-update/dog-bite-liability 

  18. http://www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp-smallclaims.htm 

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