Dog Bite Laws in California

Guide to dog bite laws in California

Financial compensation options when a dog bites and injures someone

Whether you’re a dog owner in California or a person injured by a dog, it’s important to know your rights and duties.

California lags behind most states when it comes to dog ownership (ranking 40th). Nevertheless, California had the highest number of dog-bite deaths as recently as 2016.

Though not all dog bites are fatal, non-fatal bites can cause significant injuries and infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 1 in 5 people bitten by dogs require medical attention.

All states have laws in place that address when a pet owner can be found liable in the event their dog bites someone. So how does California handle dog-bite liability?

Let’s take a look.

California dog bite laws

California dog bite law can be found in Section 3342 of the California Civil Code, which says:

The owner of any dog is liable for 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.

What does this mean?

Basically, in California the owner of a dog is liable for their dog’s bite so long as:

  • The injured person didn’t provoke the dog, and
  • The injured person was bitten in public or while lawfully on private property (i.e., not trespassing).

California’s dog bite law is known as a “strict liability law” because it holds owners liable for a dog bite even if their dog never bit anyone before and never showed any signs of aggression. This is different from “one bite” states, which only hold a dog owner liable if their dog had previously displayed violent tendencies.

California is a “strict liability” state when it comes to dog bites. Tweet this

What happens if the dog that bites is a police dog?

An injured person is prohibited from filing a lawsuit against a government agency using a dog in military or police work if the bite occurred while the dog was defending itself from an “annoying, harassing, or provoking act, or assisting an employee of the agency.”

Let’s look at a quick example.

Tom is walking his Labrador retriever, Hanks, down Hollywood Boulevard. Tom has owned Hanks for 13 years and in that time Hanks has never shown any signs of aggression. While passing a Planet Hollywood restaurant, Hanks suddenly breaks free from his leash and darts across the street and bites Ron, who is carrying a replica Leonardo da Vinci painting up the stairs of a Howard Johnson hotel.

In this hypothetical, Tom is liable for the damages suffered by Ron even though Tom’s dog never bit anyone before and even though Tom didn’t do anything to encourage the attack.

Defenses to dog bite claims

California’s strict liability law means there aren’t a lot of defenses for dog owners when a dog-bite victim files a lawsuit. In most cases, dog owners are limited to arguing that:

  • The victim wasn’t bitten
  • The victim was trespassing at the time of the injury
  • The victim provoked the dog

Dog bite damages

A dog-bite lawsuit is a type of personal injury lawsuit. Accordingly, victims can recover the same type of compensation that the plaintiff’s in other personal injury cases can recover, including:

Families of people who are killed by a dog bite may be able to recover damages by filing a wrongful death claim.

Enjuris tip:Find out more about the compensation available in a California personal injury case.

Dog bite FAQ: commonly asked questions

What happens if I’m injured by a dog, but not by a dog bite?

California’s strict liability statute doesn’t help victims who are injured by dogs that didn’t bite them. Does this ever happen? Of course! A dog might injure a child by knocking them over or might injure a person by running into their bicycle and causing them to fall.

But just because California’s dog bite law doesn’t help these victims, doesn’t mean they are without options. Victims might be able to receive compensation by filing a personal injury lawsuit against the owner and claiming that the owner acted negligently.

For example, if a dog knocks over a child, the victim can attempt to show that the dog owner was negligent by failing to control the dog (by using a leash or some other method).

When do I have to file my dog bite lawsuit?

California has a statute of limitations that places deadlines on personal injury lawsuits. Specifically, an injured person must file a lawsuit within 2 years of their injury. If the injured person fails to do so, their case will likely be dismissed and they won’t receive any compensation.

Can I sue someone if my dog is bitten?

Yes. You just can’t use California’s dog bite law to do so.

In California, dogs are considered “property,” and therefore you can sue a dog owner if your dog (property) is damaged.

The traditional measure of damages recoverable in a property damage lawsuit is the lesser of:

  • The reduction in the property's market value, or
  • The costs of repairing the property.

For example, if your dog is bitten and needs treatment from a veterinarian, you may be able to recover the cost of the treatment.

What if my dog is dangerous?

Under California law, if your dog has bitten a human on at least 2 separate occasions, any person (including the district attorney) can bring an action against you to determine what steps need to be taken to prevent another bite. These steps might include removing the dog from the area and even putting the dog to sleep.

What should I do if I’m bitten by a dog?

There are 4 things you should do if you’re bitten by a dog.

  • Step 1: Gather information. To the extent it’s safe to do so, gather as much information about the incident as possible. This includes the name of the dog owner, a description of the dog, photographs, and the contact information for anyone who witnessed the attack.
  • Step 2: Report the attack. Most counties require you to report a dog bite. If you’re unsure about where to report the incident, contact the local police.
  • Step 3: Seek medical attention. Not only is it important to seek medical attention for your health and wellbeing, but it’s also important to establish a record should you decide to file a lawsuit at a later date. Be sure to keep receipts and bills to track your expenses.
  • Step 4: Talk to an attorney. Use our free online directory to locate an attorney in your area so that you can discuss your options for recovery.


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