California’s “Beware of Dog” Sign Laws & Owner Liability

beware of dog sign

If you were bitten by a dog in California, you need to prove that you were bitten and that you were lawfully in the location where the bite occurred

California is a strict liability state for dog bites, which means a “Beware of Dog” sign doesn’t mean much in a lawsuit. The dog owner is liable for a bite whether or not the injured person was warned — and whether or not the dog has shown any previous aggressive behaviors.
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What’s your first thought when you see a “Beware of Dog” sign?

Probably that there must be a huge, slobbering monster that’s hungry for blood on the other side of the fence. Or that the owner is bluffing, and it’s really a fluffy mini breed that just wants cuddles. Or, perhaps there’s no dog at all and the sign is a deterrent so people will stay off the property.

Realistically, it could be any of those scenarios (or something entirely different).

It’s well-established that if you suffer a dog bite injury in California, the owner is liable for paying your expenses related to the injury.

But if they’ve warned you that the dog is dangerous, does that change whether you recover damages or how much?

Not really.

Overview of California dog owner liability

If you’re in a public place or lawfully in a private place — including the dog owner’s property — the dog owner is liable for damages if you’re bitten or injured by their dog.

The only exceptions are if:

  1. The injured person provoked the dog, and
  2. The injured person was bitten in public or while lawfully on private property (that is, not trespassing).
Enjuris tip:California’s strict liability law holds the owner liable for a dog bite even if the dog never bit someone before and has never shown signs of aggression. In contrast, some other states hold the owner liable only if the dog was known to have aggressive tendencies or had previously bitten someone.

Damages in a dog bite lawsuit

The term “damages” means the amount of money you can recover in a personal injury lawsuit. The purpose of the personal injury legal system is to restore the injured person to the financial condition they would be in if the accident or injury hadn’t happened.

As such, you can recover the following costs related to a dog attack or bite injury:

  • Medical treatment, including surgeries, physical therapy, doctor and hospital visits, prescription medications, vaccinations, etc.
  • Lost wages if you were out of work for a period of time while recovering from the dog bite
  • Wrongful death, if you lost a family member in a dog attack
  • Pain and suffering
  • Additional expenses related to the dog bite
Enjuris tip:If you’ve been bitten by a dog and aren’t sure what your next steps or legal remedies will be, you should keep a journal or log of all of your expenses throughout the process. Document everything — doctor or hospital visits, medications, treatments, time off from work, etc. Maintaining a list of medical bills and costs will be crucial when it comes time to assess the amount of damages.

Post-Accident Journal Form
Sample accident journal/diary to help you document the effect on your daily life
Download in PDF format

How a “Beware of Dog” sign affects a dog bite lawsuit

In some states, the owner is liable for a dog bite if the victim can prove the dog had a history of aggression or biting. The injured person might use the presence of a sign as evidence that the owner knew their dog was dangerous.

However, as mentioned earlier, this isn’t the best evidence.

People have caution signs for all sorts of reasons, and in many situations, those reasons don’t include having a dog that’s actually known to be dangerous.

Since California doesn’t require a previous aggressive incident, a warning sign doesn’t have much bearing on a finding of liability. In other words, you don’t need to prove that the dog was known to be dangerous in order to recover damages for a dog bite injury.

Proving your case in a dog bite lawsuit

Because California is a strict liability state for dog bite lawsuits, it doesn’t really help either the plaintiff or the defendant to prove the existence of a “Beware of Dog” sign.

In other words, you don’t have to prove that the owner was negligent or that they knew the dog had aggressive tendencies.

The plaintiff needs to prove 2 things The owner has 2 defenses
  1. The dog bit you.
  2. You were legally allowed to be in that location when you were bitten.
  1. You provoked the dog.
  2. You were not legally on the property.

“Beware of Dog” sign and the victim’s liability

In many states, if a plaintiff (the injured person) has contributed in any way, however small, to causing their own injury (or failing to prevent it), the amount of damages they can receive can be reduced. California is a pure comparative negligence state, which means that if you’re entitled to recover damages, they are reduced by your percentage of fault.

Often, this is for situations like a car accident. For example, the defendant might have caused an accident because they failed to stop at a red light, but the plaintiff could have braked sooner to avoid the accident if they hadn’t been speeding. In that type of case, the court would determine each party’s percentage of fault. If they believe that the defendant is 80% liable and the plaintiff is 20% liable, for example, then the plaintiff’s damage award would be reduced by 20%.

Assumption of the risk

Assumption of risk is a legal doctrine that bars a plaintiff from recovering damages because they chose to be exposed to a known danger.

This is a particularly common defense in a dog bite case where there was a “Beware of Dog” sign. If there was a posted sign warning of a potentially dangerous dog and the plaintiff willingly interacted with the dog or entered an area where the dog was enclosed, they assume the risk that they could be injured.

The owner (defendant) could argue the defense that they are not liable because the victim willingly assumed the risk, and the plaintiff is therefore liable for their own injury.

How much does the sign matter?

Like anything in the law, each case has a different set of facts and circumstances and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a lawsuit.

A “Beware of Dog” sign could give rise to an assumption of the risk defense if a plaintiff ignored the sign and decided to pet the dog, knowing it could potentially be dangerous.

But if the sign is illegible, poorly placed so it’s not visible as someone approaches the property, or otherwise ineffective, then it likely wouldn’t affect a lawsuit. In addition, if there’s a fence with a visible sign but the dog is able to slip its head through a hole in the fence, for instance, and bite a person passing by, then the sign doesn’t protect the defendant. The sign, alone, isn’t enough to create assumed risk.

Again, this is an unlikely defense in California because the owner doesn’t have to be aware of the dog’s previous tendencies in order to be liable for a dog bite.

Premises liability lawsuits for dog bite injuries

Premises liability lawsuits involve injuries related to property. Usually, this includes slip-and-fall accidents from hazardous conditions on sidewalks or floors, falls into holes, being struck by a fallen tree branch or another object, or similar injuries.

In California, a dog bite can be considered a premises liability injury.

A homeowner is responsible for keeping their property safe for an invited guest who is lawfully on the property. If someone is lawfully on the property and is bitten by a dog, the property owner is responsible.

How to recover damages after a dog bite injury

As in any personal injury lawsuit, you’ll need to prove that your injuries were caused by the bite. When you seek medical treatment, be sure to have your doctor note in your chart how your injuries occurred so there’s a detailed medical record.

You might be able to make a claim on the dog owner’s homeowners’ insurance, but that might not cover the full extent of your injuries. Insurance policies have limits and if the bite left you with very severe injuries, you might have to pay more than what the policy allows.

In addition, insurance policies usually exclusively cover medical treatment and lost wages. So if you’re claiming damages related to pain and suffering or emotional distress, the only way to recover those costs would be through a personal injury lawsuit.

As soon as you’re able to do so, consult with a California personal injury lawyer. The California statute of limitations for a personal injury is 2 years from the date of the injury. In other words, you have 2 years from the date of the dog bite in which to file a lawsuit.

But don’t wait.

The sooner you begin the legal process, the easier it is to gather evidence and go through the necessary steps for filing a lawsuit. Your lawyer will work with you to evaluate your claim, assess what you’re owed in damages, minimize your liability, and reach a settlement or go to trial so you can receive damages for your dog bite.


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