Strict Liability onDog Owners
California is one of only a few states whose law establishes "strict liability" on dog owners if their dog attacks or bites a person that is on public property or is lawfully on private property. Strict liability means that the owner is absolutely responsible for the actions of their dog, even in cases of first time bites and even when the owner is not aware of the dog’s tendencies to aggression. California Civil Code 3342 establishes that the owner is liable “regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or owner’s knowledge of such viciousness”.
The statute reads as follows:
3342. (a) 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.
(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 statute makes the dog owner 100% responsible 100% of the time, so there is no tense litigation process. This is especially helpful because most dog bite instances include family and close friends.
However, the strict liability rule does offer some protection for dog owners. A dog owner cannot be held responsible if his dog bites someone if any of the following conditions exist:
- The person who the dog bit was a trespasser. The law states that if any person was on the property of another without permission, express or implied, then such a person is a trespasser. If a dog bites a trespasser, the owner is not held liable under the strict liability rule.
- If the dog bites the vet who is treating him, the owner is not held liable for the dog bite.
- If a dog bites someone who provoked the dog, then the owner may not be held liable for the dog bite. In many cases where a dog owner has told people to stay away from his dog, but the person has still advanced towards the dog and got bitten, the dog owner is not usually held responsible because it is deemed that the victim unnecessarily provoked the dog in spite of being told not to do so.
- If a dog has bitten someone while helping the police or during a military operation, the owner will not be held responsible.
In California, the plaintiff must prove which dog bit him and to whom the dog belongs. California, unlike many states, also limits the statutes to "bites" only, dismissing damages for injuries which are not caused by "bites".