Liability for Dog Bites in California


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With over 4.5 million dog bites a year and 800,000 medical visits annually in the United States, the potential for liability is particularly worrisome to dog owners, especially with certain breeds. It is also problematic for those of us that share the walking paths, parks or city sidewalks with these pets. Learn more about what to do if you’ve been bitten by a dog in California.

Who is Considered Negligent in California?

Negligence generally presupposes that the negligent party knew or should have known that a dangerous condition existed. In California, liability for dog bites does not follow that. Rather, under state law, a dog owner is responsible for damages if the plaintiff (the injured party) was bitten and injured by a dog in public or was on private
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property legitimately.

Since California’s Civil Code 3342 covers only dog bites, liability for injuries caused by a dog that did not bite but rather jumped on the plaintiff can be addressed through a claim of negligence on the part of the owner.

Strict Liability in Dog Bites

In California, a dog owner must take steps to prevent dog bites. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, there are various preventive measures that can be taken such as keeping the dog on a lead that allows control of the animal in public or by keeping the dog fenced in a private yard. Trespassers are not covered under this rule. Police dogs are exempt.

In some states, it is possible to argue that the owner did not know ahead of time that the dog was vicious or that the dog acted in a vicious manner in the past. This is not true in California. If you own a dog and the dog bites someone, you are liable.

However, it is possible that a dog can jump up on someone, especially an older individual or a child, and cause physical injury. For example, while walking their dog, an owner stops when he or she meets a neighbor who is elderly. The dog jumps up on the neighbor, even playfully, and the person falls to the ground, fracturing her leg. In this situation, the injured party can file a negligence claim against the owner. Since the injury is not caused by a dog bite, the person must prove that the owner did not properly restrain their pet such as having the dog on a lead. Common injuries caused by dog bites include head and brain injuries, dog bite injuries of the eye, facial lacerations that may require plastic surgery and psychological issues such as PTSD.

Criminal Charges

In some situations, criminal charges can be brought against the owner. This involves dogs that are considered to be dangerous or vicious. Dangerous dogs are those who have acted twice in an aggressive manner when not on the owner’s premises in the last 36 months. This aggressive behavior made victims defend themselves from the dog. Other circumstances include: the dog bit an individual, causing a minor injury (not severe) or bit, injured or killed another domesticated animal in the previous 36 months.

A vicious dog is one whose owner was convicted of illegal activities using dogs such as dogfighting. In addition, the dog may have been labeled a dangerous dog in the past, but the dog’s owner disregarded the rules about keeping a dangerous dog. A vicious dog is one that seriously injured or killed another person.

If a dog in either of these classifications is not reasonably restrained and allowed to roam and kills a person, the owner can face felony charges. If the attacked individual is severely injured, the charges may be downgraded to a misdemeanor in some cases, although felony charges are possible.

When criminal charges exist against the dog owner, the injured party or their family, in the event they are killed, can file a civil claim against the dog owner. Since criminal charges require proof beyond a reasonable doubt and civil charges require proof based on the preponderance of the evidence, the criminal case conviction can be used as evidence in a civil lawsuit. Civil lawsuits often follow criminal charges. For more information contact a Sacramento wrongful death lawyer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Edward A. Smith
Edward A. Smith's legal practice, the Law Offices of Edward A. Smith, focuses exclusively on personal injury and wrongful death claims. Mr. Smith has written several books in order to make the ins and outs of the insurance and legal world accessible to the public. His books, The Ultimate California Auto Accident Handbook and California Motorcycle Accident Handbook, are highly rated and available in paperback and Kindle format on Amazon. He has also been a frequent guest on radio and TV in California.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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