Financial compensation options when a dog bites and injures someone in the Golden State
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 an in-depth look.
California dog ownership statistics
According to the latest data from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), almost 40 percent of California households own at least 1 dog.
Due in large part to the fact that California is the most populated state in the country, there are more dogs in California than in any other state.
Dog ownership increased across the country in 2020 (largely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic) and is expected to continue to increase over the next decade.
California dog bite laws
There are 2 main types of dog bite laws in the United States:
- Strict liability. In states that apply strict liability, a dog owner is liable for a dog bite regardless of whether or not the dog has displayed aggressive or violent tendencies in the past.
- One-bite rule. In states that apply a one-bite rule, a dog owner is only liable for a dog bite if the owner knew or should have known about their dog's violent tendencies.
California's dog bite law is a strict liability law. In California, the owner of a dog is liable for the damages caused by 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).
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.
California law also requires dog owners to provide the victims of a dog bite with their address, telephone number, and the name, license tag number, and vaccination history of the dog who bit the victim.
If you’re interested in reading California's dog bite law in full, you can find it in Section 3342 of the California Civil Code. Here it is for your convenience:
“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.”
Settlement for California woman injured in police dog attack
Jenna Cole was awarded a $600,000 dog bite settlement from the City of San Diego.
In January 2021, Jenna was in her backyard with her 5-year-old daughter, who was playing in her net-covered trampoline. Bubo, a San Diego Sheriff's Department dog, was in his handler's backyard when he escaped through a gate with a broken latch while the officer was cleaning the kennel.
The dog tried to attack the child but the trampoline net protected her. However, the dog began to attack Cole from beneath the trampoline. He bit her ankle down to the bone and tendon, which resulted in severe pain, bleeding, permanent injury and damage.
Cole's lawsuit referred to the attack as unprovoked and vicious and it claimed that the city was negligent in its training, monitoring and confinement of the dog. The lawsuit argued that this type of animal should be kept in a secure facility and not a residential neighborhood.
The City's defense was that the dog had escaped, and that the attack was unintentional. However, the City settled with Cole for $600,000 for her medical treatment, diminished earning capacity and mental health counseling for her and her daughter.
Criminal liability for dog bites in California
In addition to a civil lawsuit filed by a dog bite victim, a dog owner may face criminal charges if the dog bite occurred while the dog was:
- At large (i.e., not under the control of the owner), and
- The owner knew their dog was prone to “mischievous” behavior.
The exact criminal charges depend on the nature of the injuries. The owner can be charged with a felony if the dog bite victim was killed as a result of the bite and a misdemeanor if the victim suffered non-fatal injuries.
Defenses to California 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 available in California
A dog bite lawsuit is a type of personal injury lawsuit. Accordingly, victims can recover the same type of compensation that plaintiffs in other personal injury cases can recover, including:
- Medical expenses
- Property damage
- Lost wages
- Pain and suffering (emotional distress)
Families of people who are killed by a dog bite may be able to recover damages by filing a wrongful death claim.
When a dog bite injury occurs at the home of the owner, the owner's homeowners insurance policy will typically cover liability up to the policy limit (usually between $100,000 and $300,000). If the claim exceeds the limit, the dog owner will be personally responsible for the damages.
What should I do if I'm bitten by a dog in California?
If you're bitten by a dog in California, there are 4 things you should do:
- Step 1: Gather information. To the extent that 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 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.
How do I find a California dog bite attorney?
It’s important to meet with an experienced California dog bite attorney after suffering a dog bite injury.
Keep in mind that even minor bites can develop into significant problems down the road. According to the Academy of Pediatrics, infection occurs in 10-15 percent of dog bites. Serious infections that may occur include tetanus, rabies and sepsis.
A dog bite attorney can gather evidence and pursue a legal strategy to recover all of the damages you deserve. This might include filing an insurance claim or pursuing a personal injury lawsuit against the dog owner, the owner of the property where the dog bite occurred, or even a 3rd party who was partially responsible for the dog bite.
You can find an experienced California dog bite attorney using our free online directory.
Meet California dog bite attorney Chelsee Sachs of MVP Accident Attorneys.
“In most cases, a dog bite lawsuit will be filed against the owner of the dog. However, other parties may also be liable depending on the nature of the attack. For example, a restaurant owner could potentially be liable if the dog bite occurred in their restaurant. An experienced dog bite attorney can review your case and ensure that all avenues of recovery are pursued. At MVP Accident Attorneys, we offer FREE initial consultations.”
Dog bite FAQ: commonly asked questions
Still have questions about California dog bites? Let’s see if we can answer them:
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’re 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.
Meet California dog bite attorney Brett Sachs of MVP Accident Attorneys.
“The statute of limitations for most dog bite claims in California is 2 years. This means you typically have 2 years from the date you’re bitten by a dog to file a lawsuit. If you fail to file a lawsuit within the 2-year statute of limitations, your claim will be forever barred. Although there are a couple of narrow exceptions to the 2-year statute of limitations, it’s a good idea to meet with a dog bite attorney as soon as possible to make sure you preserve your legal rights. At MVP Accident Attorneys, we offer FREE initial consultations.”
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,” so 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.
Is my dog required to be on a leash in California?
Yes. In California, all dogs must be restrained by a substantial chain or leash not exceeding 6 feet in length when the dog is off the owner’s private property.
What’s more, all dogs must wear a dog tag affixed to a collar, harness or another device except when the dog is indoors or in an enclosed yard.
Can my dog be impounded?
Yes. California has the power to immediately impound a dog when there’s evidence the dog has attacked, bitten or injured a human or another animal, pending any legal proceeding arising from the attack.
Is my dog required to be vaccinated?
Yes. Every person who owns a dog over the age of 4 months must have the dog vaccinated against rabies.