Overview of Dog Bite Laws

California passed a statute that eliminated the “one-free bite” rule by holding a dog owner liable even if the dog has never bitten anyone or shown a tendency to bite.  Under this statute, liability is based upon ownership, and the dog’s past behavior is irrelevant. In California, a victim of a dog bite only needs to show that: 1) The dog was owned by the defendant; 2) The bite took place on public property or while the victim was lawfully on private property; 3) The victim was actually bitten by the dog; and 4) The victim was injured by the dog.


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".


Liability Based Upon Common Law "Negligence"

California’s dog bite law (California Civil Code section 3342) makes dog owners strictly liable for damages caused by their dog, “regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.” Therefore, the statute is limited to "owners" only. Although the statute makes the owner automatically liable, other person in control of the dog (such as a dog walker) could also be found liable in some cases.

There is another basis for imposing liability for a California dog attack or dog bite accident. Liability in an injury case involving a dog or other animal may also be based on negligence or negligence per se. If it is shown that a dog is not properly controlled and/or handled, liability may be based on negligently controlling the dog. Negligence is a theory that can be used when there are others besides the dog owner that contributed to the dog attack to whom the California dog bite statute does not apply. For example, if the person acted negligently or if the person knew or should have known the dog’s likelihood of biting, then they may be liable.

Additionally, there are a few exceptions to the dog bite law under which an owner would not be liable. One is when veterinarians and other professionals who make their living working with dogs “assume the risk” of dog bites as part of their job.  Another is when the dog is provoked, such as a child who hits the animal with a stick.


Other Dog Bite Situations

Sometimes people’s jobs bring them into contact with dogs, and when a worker suffers an on the job dog bite injury, he can pursue both a California worker’s compensation case and a third party liability lawsuit against the owner of the dog. For example, when a dog injures a postal worker in the course of delivering mail, this sets up a more complicated type of injury case litigation.

Another third party that may be considered following a dog attack is the property owner. All owners of properties that are open to the public have a legal responsibility to provide reasonably safe environment for the visitors. Property owners who have dangerous dogs on the premises may be held liable for any injuries the dog causes.

Special circumstances apply when minors are bitten by a dog in California. The law states that children under the age of 5 are incapable of negligent behavior, therefore, their behavior would not be at issue in a dog bite situation. However, in some cases, the minor’s parents may be held responsible for their child's behavior.