Dog Bite Laws in California

August 18, 2022 | Article by Chain | Cohn | Clark staff

Dog Bite Laws in California

If you are bitten by a dog in California, you may be eligible to receive compensation for your injuries. Unsurprisingly, your ability to recover benefits will be governed by a variety of laws on dog bite liability.

California’s Dog Bite Law

Section 3342 of California law holds the owner of a dog liable for any injuries sustained by the victim of a dog bite. The bite must have occurred in a public or private place the victim was lawfully present. Because the blame is automatically put onto the owner regardless of their knowledge of the dog’s prior behavior, this is referred to as a strict liability law. 

Strict Liability for California Dog Bite Injuries

Strict liability means that an owner is responsible for the injuries caused by their dog. California is one of few states with this type of law. It does not matter if an owner knew of their dog’s aggressive behavior or if it had ever bitten someone previously. It does not matter what precautions the dog owner took to prevent a bite from occurring. If the dog bites someone, the dog’s owner is responsible. 

Strict liability is applied under Section 3342 when an injured person is bitten while lawfully in a private or public place. The dog owner’s property can count as an applicable private place. Anybody who is performing a legal duty—such as delivering mail or packages—will be considered lawfully present on private property, and therefore have grounds to pursue damages even if they were there unexpectedly.

Injured people cannot sue when they are bitten by police or military dogs that are defending someone or on the job. However, a dog bite victim that was not a target or suspected of being involved in a crime may still sue if bitten by a police or military dog. 

Dog owners are also generally exempt from liability in California if their dogs bite veterinarians or vet assistants while being treated. Those who work with animals often assume the necessary risk of being bitten or attacked.

Careless Dog Owners

There are exceptions to the strict liability statute in California. If there was no actual “bite,” the dog owner will not automatically be held responsible for the damages. 

For example, if you are riding a bicycle and a dog chases you, it may result in a collision or accident. If you are injured from the bicycle crash, the owner is not strictly liable for the damages.

You may, however, still have a case to recover compensation if you can prove that the dog owner was negligent or did not exercise reasonable care to control their pet. Somebody who is scratched or chased may be able to argue that the owner should have kept the dog contained with a fence or leash. 

If you sustain injuries as the result of a careless dog owner that were not from a bite, you may want to hire a California animal attack attorney to help you prove the other party’s fault.

What Is Classified as a “Bite”?

A “bite” does not necessarily have to break the skin. In Johnson v. Mcmahan (1998), the court found a dog owner to be guilty even though there was no blood or puncture. In this case, the dog bit a worker’s pants while he was climbing a ladder, leading him to fall. The owner was responsible for the injuries caused by contact with the ground. Even though this pertains more to dog owner carelessness than the dog biting, strict liability laws were still applied.

California’s Dangerous Dogs Laws

Beyond the strict liability statute in California, there is also a state law that pertains to preventing any future danger. Owners must take reasonable steps to remove the danger of attacks if their dog has bitten someone in the past. Anybody can file a civil lawsuit against the owner of a dog that’s bitten somebody twice or the owner of a trained attack dog that seriously injured someone with only one bite. 

After a dog attack, a court can order the owner to take steps toward preventing future attacks. This could include removing the dog from the premises, adding more control measures, or having it put down. Civil proceedings can’t be based on prior accidents that involve biting trespassers or bites by military and police dogs on the job. 

There is another legal procedure for controlling and containing dangerous dogs. If animal control or a law enforcement officer believes a dog might be a threat, they are required to file a petition for a hearing. The court will determine whether or not the animal is potentially dangerous after the hearing. They may require a dog to be kept indoors, in a fenced yard, or on a secure leash. 

If the animal is found to pose a serious threat to the public, the court may decide to have the dog put down. If the dog is not put down, there must be conditions placed on controlling the animal for the protection of the public. The court can also decide to prohibit the owner from having a dog for up to three full years. Any violations of these restrictions will result in fines. 

Dogs are considered to be “potentially dangerous” in California if they have done the following:

  • Bitten a human without being provoked, causing a minor injury.
  • Killed or harmed another domestic animal without being provoked at least twice in the last three years.
  • Forced a person to protect themselves from aggressive and unprovoked behavior in at least two accidents over the last three years.

The state considers dogs to be “vicious” if they have done the following:

  • Aggressively injured or killed someone without provocation.
  • Repeated a dangerous behavior after already being found as a “potentially dangerous” dog. The dog may also be considered vicious if the dog’s owner did not meet legal conditions after the first decision.

Similar to many other states, if no legal action is brought against a dog or dog owner, there may be no consequences for a dog bite. However, once the dog bite has occurred, other individuals are allowed to show concern about the presence of a dangerous dog and, if necessary, call for a hearing.

Liability for Dog Bites in California

There are two possible types of liability in dog bite cases: criminal and civil. An individual who has control over a dog might face criminal charges if they knew the dog was prone to dangerous behavior. If the victim is killed, the crime is a felony; if the victim was only injured, the crime could be a misdemeanor or a felony.

Punishments for dog bite crimes will be relative to the severity of the injuries caused by the animal. If the crime is a misdemeanor, the owner could be looking at fines and other consequences related to dog ownership. If there is a felony charge, the owner will receive higher fines, more intense ownership restrictions, and potential jail time.

Civil charges can be filed in conjunction with criminal charges to help the victim receive damages. While criminal charges can help prevent further issues with dangerous animals and negligent owners, they will do nothing to compensate the injured individual. If someone wants benefits, they must separately file a claim for compensatory benefits

Below, you will find the kinds of damages that may be recovered under a civil lawsuit for dog bite injuries.

  • Economic damages: Also referred to as special damages, economic damages are those which have a concrete monetary value. This includes any expense relevant to your accident that comes with a price tag. In dog bite and animal attack cases, this is primarily medical expenses and/or lost wages. Other costs may include transportation to and from medical institutions and physical therapy costs. 
  • Non-economic damages: These damages, also referred to as general damages, deal with benefits that do not have a specific monetary value tied to them. They can be tougher to quantify because their severity is subjective. Non-economic damages include pain and suffering, emotional and physical trauma, etc. The parties involved will be responsible for determining how much these factors are worth. If the case goes to trial, the jury will decide the value of non-economic damages. It’s important to have an attorney who can help you prove how detrimental an accident has been to your life

In very rare cases, an individual may be forced to pay punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and discourage negligent behavior in the future. However, punitive damages are relatively rare and are often reserved for cases of gross negligence committed by larger entities, such as a corporation. 

California Animal Attack Lawyers

While dog bites are the most common form of animal attack of which California residents can pursue compensation, they are not the only form of animal attack. If an animal that somebody else has a reasonable expectation to control causes you harm in some way, you can likely pursue compensation for your injuries—as long as you did not cause or contribute to the injuries in a serious way.

The animal attack attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Clark have spent decades representing animal attack and dog bite victims. Our in-depth understanding of applicable state laws helps us to find the best route for you to recover damages. Fill out our online contact form to get started pursuing the compensation you deserve.