When someone is bitten by a dog, there are laws in place to hold the owner of that dog accountable. California has one of the highest rates of dog bite attacks, with nearly 20,000 dog bite injuries occurring in Los Angeles County each year. Those numbers have grown each year with several dog attacks even resulting in a fatality. If you become a victim of a dog bite attack, it is important to know exactly what the law says so you can take the necessary steps to recover any damages incurred.
What are Dog Bite Laws in California?
The California dog bite statute is California Civil Code Section 3342 which states:
“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. A person is lawfully upon the private property of such owner within the meaning of this section when he is on such property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this state or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States, or when he is on such property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner.”
This simply means that the owner of a dog is responsible for their dog’s actions, regardless of the dog’s past behavior, if their dog attacks anyone in public or lawfully in a private place such as guests or mail carriers.
What are the Different Degrees of Dog Bites?
There are varying degrees of severity when assessing a dog bite.
Level 1 is not an actual bite, but more of the threat or attempt of one. It is defined by aggression without the dog’s teeth making contact with the skin. This is often just a scare tactic or a warning.
Level 2 is when the teeth make contact but do not puncture the skin. This is more serious, but also often more of a threat or warning than a real attempt to do real harm.
Level 3 is when the teeth break the skin in up to four places with one bite. Level 3 is a shallow bite, meaning that none of the punctures go deeper than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth.
Level 4 is a deeper bite, meaning that at least one puncture is more than half the length of the dog’s canine teeth. A level 4 bite might also show bruising caused from the movement of the dog’s head.
Level 5 is when there are multiple level 4 bites or multiple attacks.
Level 6 is when the attack is fatal.
Levels 1 and 2 are the most common and make up most dog bites. These instances are often easily addressed by extra training for the dog in question. Level 4 is when there starts to be cause for alarm. The dog in question may have serious aggression issues. Level 5 is when professionals recommend that the dog be put down, not just for the safety of others, but also for the dog’s own good. Level 6 is the least common occurrence.
What Does Strict Liability for California Dog Bite Injuries Mean?
Elsewhere in the country, owners are only liable if the dog has a record. California has very strict laws on dog bite attacks. Here, it doesn’t matter if someone has the sweetest or well-trained dog. If that dog bites someone, even just once, the owner is liable.
While dog owners are responsible for almost all dog bite injuries, there are limitations. The owner is strictly liable if the victim was bitten and either in public or lawfully in a private place.
This means that an owner is liable if their dog bites the mailman, but not if their dog bites a burglar.
Civil Court Standards for Dog Bite Lawsuits
In a dog bite case, there are several things that the dog bite victim must prove.
- That the defendant owned the dog in question
- That the plaintiff was in a public place or lawfully on private property
- That the plaintiff suffered harm
- That the defendant’s dog was a substantial factor in causing that harm
What About Getting Bit by a Police Dog?
There are additional technicalities in California dog bite laws when it comes to military and law enforcement. California law specifies that
“(b) Nothing in this section shall authorize the bringing of an action pursuant to subdivision (a) against any governmental agency using a dog in military or police work if the bite or bites occurred while the dog was defending itself from an annoying, harassing, or provoking act, or assisting an employee of the agency in any of the following:
(1) In the apprehension or holding of a suspect where the employee has a reasonable suspicion of the suspect’s involvement in criminal activity.
(2) In the investigation of a crime or possible crime.
(3) In the execution of a warrant.
(4) In the defense of a peace officer or another person.
(c) Subdivision (b) shall not apply in any case where the victim of the bite or bites was not a party to, nor a participant in, nor suspected to be a party to or a participant in, the act or acts that prompted the use of the dog in the military or police work.
(d) Subdivision (b) shall apply only where a governmental agency using a dog in military or police work has adopted a written policy on the necessary and appropriate use of a dog for the police or military work enumerated in subdivision (b).”
This means that if a suspect is bitten by a police dog, they cannot sue. But if someone who was not a suspect is bitten by a police dog, they can sue.
California Laws for Dangerous Dogs
It doesn’t matter what kind of past a dog has for the owner to be held liable. But it does matter when it comes to the owner’s responsibility to protect the public. California Civil Code Section 3342.5 specifies
(a) The owner of any dog that has bitten a human being shall have the duty to take such reasonable steps as are necessary to remove any danger presented to other persons from bites by the animal.
If there are two separate instances of a dog biting a person, action can be brought against the owner regarding how that dog should be handled in the interest of public safety. This can cause the dog to be removed from the area or be euthanized. For dogs that are specifically trained to be attack dogs, legal action can be taken after just one attack.
When assessing the bite history of a dog, civil proceedings may not consider instances of the dog attacking trespassers, or bites made in the line of duty as a police or military dog.
If a dog is considered dangerous, a member of the public can file a complaint with the police or animal control.
If the court determines that a dog is dangerous, there are limitations to how that dog must be contained. The dog must be kept indoors, in a well fenced yard, or on a secure leash handled by an adult. If a dog is determined to be vicious, they may even be ordered to be put down, and that dog’s owner might not be allowed to have another dog for up to three years.
There are slight differences between a dangerous dog and a vicious dog.
A potentially dangerous dog
- Has at least two separate instances within three years of unprovoked aggression outside of the owner’s property
- Bitten someone unprovoked
- Has at least two separate instances within three years of causing injury or death to another domestic animal
A vicious dog
- Seriously injured or killed a person unprovoked
- Has more than two separate attacks recorded within three years
- Was already considered dangerous and either continued dangerous behavior or their owner did not meet the restrictions set by the court
In a civil claim, the animal’s history of being dangerous or vicious could increase the owner’s liability. If the owner did not take the proper steps to contain the dog, they may even face criminal charges.
Criminal Liability for Dog Bites
If a dangerous or vicious dog injures someone, their owner could be brought up on misdemeanor charges. If that dog kills someone, their owner could face felony charges up to and including murder charges. They may be ordered to pay fines or even go to prison.
A dog being used for illegal dog fighting can also result in the dog being classified as vicious and could lead to criminal charges for the owner.
Defenses Against Dog Bite Laws in California
There are some exceptions to California law regarding liability in dog bite claims.
First and foremost, a dog might be somewhere it shouldn’t, such as someone else’s property. The owner of the property might not be the owner of the dog. To bring a claim against a person for a dog bite, that person must be the actual owner of that dog.
As we mentioned earlier, a dog owner is also not liable when their dog bites someone who is trespassing on their private property.
The owner is also not liable if the victim provoked the attack. If someone is harassing or attacking a dog and it bites them, they have no one to blame but themselves.
Finally, dog bite laws only pertain to actual dog bites. It doesn’t have to break the skin, but it does have to involve teeth. If someone is scratched or knocked over by a dog, it is not enough to qualify.
What if a Dog Bites Someone That Handles Dogs Regularly as Part of Their Job?
There are many professions that require direct contact and interaction with dogs. While these jobs carry a greater risk of being bitten by a dog, that risk is assumed in taking the job, and usually prevents them from being able to sue over it.
There are some situations that grant exception to this rule.
- If the bite did not occur while carrying out the job duties. If a veterinarian is bitten while performing an exam, the owner is not liable. If a veterinarian is bitten outside in the parking lot, the owner might be liable.
- If the victim was directly employed by the dog owner.
- If the dog had a bite history that the owner knew about but did not inform the people working with the dog.
- If the owner signs a contract agreeing to be held liable for the damages caused by their dog.
Deadline for Filing a Dog Bite Claim in California
Most situations have a statute of limitations, meaning a person has a certain amount of time in which to file a claim after an incident occurs.
A dog bite injury is considered personal injury. Personal injury claims must be filed within two years of the incident to go anywhere with the court.
Contact Mesriani if You Have Been a Victim of a Dog Bite
If you are a dog bite victim and need a dog bite lawyer, call Mesriani Law Group today for a free consultation. Our team of licensed personal injury lawyers have years of experience fighting for victims of dog attacks to ensure that they receive the compensation they deserve. Fighting for damages alone is difficult, especially when you are recovering from injury. Let Mesriani Law Group fight for you so you can focus on getting back to 100%.
Dog Bite Law FAQs
What happens if my dog bites someone in California?
Dog owners have a legal responsibility to keep the public safe from their animal. After a dog has bitten someone, it may require more extensive behavioral training and/or more secure containment measures.
Are California dog owners liable if their dog bites someone?
California dog owners are liable if their dog has bitten someone in a public place or someone who is lawfully in a private place, and if the dog attack is unprovoked.
Does California have the one bite rule?
California law states that dog owners are liable for dog bites even if it is a first offense.
Can you sue for a minor dog bite in California?
If a dog bites someone, that person can sue the dog’s owner. It does not have to be a serious bite and does not necessarily even have to break the skin, but it does have to be a bite.