If you’re a dog person, you can attest to the love and loyalty of your canine companion. And while they may be benevolent and well-disposed with you, it is common that these behaviors may not generalize to other humans, dogs, or animals.
If you’re a dog owner in California, make sure you’re aware of the liability laws applying to you and your dog, including on private and public property, such as dog parks. California is a state with “strict liability” laws that hold pet owners responsible for injuries incurred by their pets.
1. Previous Knowledge of Aggression Doesn’t Matter in CA
California employs a “strict liability” law with little room for defense. Owners cannot argue that they had no prior knowledge of, or were unaware and had never seen, aggressive behaviors in their dog before.
At the same time, the owner is strictly liable only if the injured person was bitten, and in a public place or “lawfully in a private place” when the bite occurred. The latter means that the victim was not trespassing on private property at the time of the bite, and includes mail delivery or parcel delivery people.
Our next point discusses how dog bites are not the only kind of dog-related injury to be concerned about.
2. Dog Bites Aren’t The Only Thing Owners Can Be Held Liable For
A “dog bite” may still be considered as such even if the teeth don’t break the skin. For example, if a dog latches on to an individual, causing that person to lose their balance, the owner could be held liable for any injuries that flow from the incident (such as a broken wrist).
The same holds true in the case of a pre-existing medical condition. If the incident exacerbates this condition, the common legal rule is that the injurious party (the dog’s owner) is responsible for its worsening. In this type of situation, the owner may be required to compensate the victim for medical bills far exceeding what might be typically expected in a dog bite case.
In a case where a worker fell from his ladder after a dog closed its jaws on his pants, the court held that the animal’s owner was liable for the injuries under section 3342 (Johnson v. McMahan, 80 Cal.Rptr.2d 173 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1998)).
But what if your dog accidentally gets out, causing a passing driver to swerve and crash? Most jurisdictions have ordinances outlining an owner’s obligation toward keeping their pets properly secured, whether behind a fence, or on a leash or lead. Any neglect or inaction on the owner’s part that precipitates an incident (and yes, this includes Houdini making his great escape), could land them in some seriously hot water.
3. There’s More Than Just Physical Damage Considered for Liability
Even if no bodily damage is suffered, you should still be aware of which situations could result in your being held liable, and what your liability might be.
Previously, we wondered what might happen if your dog causes an accident. Whether it be with a car, or a bike, or something else, the law holds that the owner is most likely at fault. Consequently, the owner will be held responsible any property damage caused in the incident. This means you might be required to pay for the repairs to the impacted vehicle, to a neighbor’s yard, or even to someone’s eyeglasses, were they broken as a result. Often, this sort of damage is covered by homeowner’s insurance, so might make sense to take a look at your policy.
But sometimes the damage isn’t so obvious. Consider: emotional trauma.
In California, injured parties can also recover monetary damages for undue pain and suffering caused by a run-in with someone’s pet. This holds especially for children, who are more likely to experience long-term emotional distress following a dog bite, and to whom juries are much more likely to be sympathetic. In the case of a two-year-old left with permanent facial scarring, as well as persistent fear, clinginess, and sleeplessness, a jury awarded $50,000 for past and future pain and suffering. For adult victims, monetary damages may also provide for lost income.
4. Both Criminal and Civil Charges Can Be Filed In A Dog Bite Incident
Though it’s frightening to learn, particularly careless dog owners can be charged with criminal negligence. In California, what it mainly comes down to is foreknowledge.
If a dog has a history of aggression, and this is known to the owner or to the courts, conviction of some kind is probable—whether misdemeanor or otherwise. Other convictable offenses are not taking reasonable steps correct any known behaviors, or not adequately prevent an attack from occurring. This means criminal charges can be expected if a dog prone to violence bites someone after being allowed by its owner to roam free. If the victim is killed, this could be a felony.
It’s important to understand that criminal and civil charges are not either/or, as well. They can occur concurrently, or at different times, provided that the civil suit is filed by the aggrieved party within two years of the incident. In certain circumstances this deadline can be extended.
So what defense, if any, do dog owners have?
5. There Are Just a Few Legitimate Defenses in Dog Bite Cases
If you’re already a dog owner, at this point you’re hopefully not panic-browsing Amazon for the finest doggie door-lock on the market. That brand of concern is neither ideal, nor the intent of this post. So with that in mind, hopefully the following section will assuage at least some of the fears the above may have caused. (The basket of Corgi’s at the end should help.)
In the first section we outlined California’s “strict liability,” but there are certain exceptions to these laws, meaning owners aren’t left entirely defenseless. For example, if the dog bite victim were trespassing on the owner’s property at the time of the injury, or were in the process of committing some other type of crime, they would not have grounds to sue.
These laws also don’t apply if the bite victim was careless or voluntarily took risk of injury. If someone is bitten after provoking, teasing, or hitting a dog, the courts are all but guaranteed to relieve its owner of liability. Other circumstances in which provocation could be used as a defense include stepping on a dog’s tail, or in trying to break up a dog fight, though both of these are situationally dependent.
The final defense is a compromise: partial fault. If someone disregards a “beware of dog” sign in your yard, or is bitten while petting your dog through your garden fence, this is likely to be your defense. Under California’s “comparative negligence” rule, compensation would be reduced if the owner can show that the victim was at least partially at fault.
It does help a little, right?
If you’re a dog person, you’re probably melting right now. It’s the same feeling you get when you glance to your right and find your four-legged friend snoring next to you. Being the proud parent of a dog is one of the greatest gifts the animal kingdom has provided us, and while its rewards are abundant, it is not without its risks.
As a dog owner, it is important to know exactly what you are taking on, your potential liability, and what your options if the unthinkable occurs. In this case, foreknowledge is on your side.
(Though if your pup shares ancestry with Houdini, perhaps that door-lock is advised.)
Have a serious injury and need legal advice?
Contact Howard Blau.
Check Out These References for Further Reading:
“California Dog-Bite Laws.” Nolo. Retrieved 3 April 2018. https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/california-dog-bite-laws.html
Dog Bites and Other Injuries: A Dog Owner’s Legal Defenses.” Nolo. Retrieved 3 April 2018. https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/free-books/dog-book/chapter11-5.html
“Compensation for Dog Bites and Other Injuries.” Nolo. Retrieved 3 April 2018. https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/free-books/dog-book/chapter11-7.html
“Dog-Bite Lawsuits: What Happens If the Victim Was Partly at Fault?” Nolo. Retrieved 3 April 2018. https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/dog-bite-lawsuits-what-happens-if-the-victim-was-partly-at-fault.html
“Dog Bite Prevention.” AVMA. Retrieved 3 April 2018. https://www.avma.org/public/Pages/Dog-Bite-Prevention.aspx
“California Animal / Dog Law Questions & Answers.” Justia. Retrieved 3 April 2018. https://answers.justia.com/questions/answered/california/animal-dog-law
“West’s Ann. Cal. Penal Code § 398 – 399.5, § 487e et seq, § 597b, § 597s, and § 597z; West’s Ann. Cal. Health & Safety Code § 121575 et seq, § 121875 et seq., 122045 – 122315; West’s Ann.Cal.Food & Agric.Code § 30501 – 31683; West’s Ann. Cal. Fish & G. C.” Animal Legal & Historical Center. Retrieved 3 April 2018. https://www.animallaw.info/statute/ca-dogs-consolidated-dog-laws
“West’s Ann. Cal. Food & Agric. Code § 31601 – 31683; West’s Ann. Cal. Civ. Code § 3342 – 3342.5; West’s Ann. Cal. Health & Safety Code § 121685; West’s Ann. Cal. Penal Code § 398 – 399.5.” Animal Legal & Historical Center. Retrieved 3 April 2018. https://www.animallaw.info/statute/ca-dangerous-california-dangerous-dog-statutes
“An Ordinance of the Board of Supervisors of the County of Ventura, State of California, Amending Chapter 4 of Division 4, and Article 6, Chapter 4 of Division 2, of the Ventura County Ordinance Code.” Ventura County Animal Services. Retrieved 3 April 2018. http://www.vcas.us/images/pdf/VC%20Ordinance%2012-10-2013.pdf
“Car Accidents Caused By Animals.” The Balance. Retrieved 3 April 2018. https://www.thebalance.com/car-accidents-caused-by-animals-527081