• California Dog Bite Lawyers are dealing with an increasing number of cases, as irresponsible dog owners fail to properly socialize and train their dogs.

  • California dog bite law follows the theory of strict liability, meaning the victim need only prove they were actually physically bitten by the dog causing injury and in a public place or was not tresspassing on private property. The actions of the dog’s owner are inconsequential to the case.
  • Anyone legally on a property, including delivery personnel, city inspectors, repairmen, and other guests, whether the owner of the property was home or not, can be the victim of dog bites.
  • Military and police (K9 or canine) dogs are exempt from dog bite litigation, if they were serving their intended purpose and acting under the command of their carer.

  • Dog owners who fail to control their dogs in public or social environments, and the dog causes injury via other means without biting the victim, can be sued under California negligence laws.
  • Under California dog bite law, owners of dogs with a history of biting must take steps to prevent additional incidents. If not, the owner can be held liable in both civil and criminal court.
  • Many insurance companies provide dog bite coverage as part of their homeowner’s insurance policies. Victims of dog bites should consult with an experienced dog bite lawyer to guarantee their rights and compensation are being fairly represented before signing any settlement.

Dog bites in California are an, unfortunately, increasingly common aspect of life. Irresponsible dog owners may improperly socialize dogs, may fail to adequately train dogs to be around other humans, or may simply be unable to handle or be aware of their dog’s propensity to bite. Despite this, dog bites can lead to serious physical and emotional damages, even including, in the case of children or the elderly, death. Understanding your legal rights with regards to dog bites in San Mateo County, California is an important first step towards obtaining a just and adequate compensation for your injuries.

Proving Your Case

Because of the dangerous nature of dog bites, California law imposes a theory known as strict liability against dog bites. This is a statutory imposition, and means that the victim of a dog bite need not show that the owner of the dog did anything wrong in particular. In order to prevail, a victim need only show that he or she was actually bitten by the dog, that the victim was in a public place or in a private place where he or she was not trespassing (like a social guest in a private home), and that the victim was actually injured.

This statutory regime is therefore an incredibly powerful tool for victims of dog bites to recover for their injuries, and is unlike many other causes of actions, which require a victim to prove that the perpetrator did something wrong (for example, was legally negligent). Under this theory of strict liability, a dog owner can still be held liable even if they did everything in their ability to prevent the bite. For example, the dog owner could have posted signs throughout the property, could have restrained or caged the dog, and could have verbally warned about the dog’s behavior yet, if the dog still, did, actually bite, that owner is still liable for all physical and emotional injuries that flow from the incident. This statutory regime also applies even if the dog had never displayed any aggressive behavior whatsoever before: like if the dog was always known to be quiet and calm, but chose to bite a social guest, the owner will still be liable under a theory of strict liability flowing from the bite.

What if someone was tresspassing?

The statute is also quite broad in the people that it covers. For example, anyone who is lawfully on private property can take advantage of the liability imposed. This includes not only social guests of the dog owner, but also people such as delivery personnel, city inspectors, repairmen, people working for the utility company, and more—even if the homeowner was not home at the time of the incident, or was not otherwise aware that the individuals would be present on the property at the time they were. So long as these individuals were not illegally trespassing on the property, they will likely be entitled to sue under this theory of strict liability.

What a dog “bite” is has also been broadly construed. According to a California appellate court, in Johnson v. McMahan, 80 Cal. Rptr. 2d 173 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1998), a dog bite includes an incident where a dog’s teeth did not necessarily break the skin. In Johnson, a worker fell from a ladder after the dog placed its mouth on the worker’s pants. Although the worker was not injured directly from the bite of the dog (the dog’s bite did not break the skin, or cause any other injury on the skin or leg), the worker sustained serious injuries as a result of falling off the ladder. As a result, the worker was sued under California’s strict liability statute for dog bites, and prevailed.

Police Dog Bites

One important caveat to this statute is the case of military or police dogs serving their intended purpose. For example, if you have been bitten by a police dog during the course of an arrest, or as a result of provoking the dog causing the dog to defend itself, you will be unable to sue under California’s strict liability statutory scheme (depending on the context of the bite, it is possible that other legal remedies may be available, but not, specifically, the strict liability scheme discussed here). If, however, you were bitten by a police dog after being invited over to the home of a policeman, you will still likely be able to recover under the strict liability theory.

Negligent Dog Owners

Dog bites that don’t actually injure someone physically—for example, if a dog bites a bicycle wheel, or chases a bicyclist leading to an accident—are not evaluated under this strict liability standard. The same is true for incidents with dogs in which a bite is not involved (for example, if the dog scratches someone causing injury, but does not actually bite). This does not mean, however, that the injured party is entirely without compensation. On the contrary, these incidents are evaluated under a negligence standard, as with other premises liability cases, requiring a more difficult legal process, but still likely resulting in recovery.

Under a negligence theory, the victim must prove four interrelated elements: that the dog owner had a duty of care, that the owner violated this duty of care, that the violation of the duty of care was a cause of the injuries, and that the injuries sustained were physical (or at least that there was a physical component to the injuries). If a victim proves each of these elements, the dog owner will be considered legally negligent, and will be obligated to compensate for all injuries flowing from the incident.

As to duty, California law imposes a duty on all dog owners to prevent their dogs from harming another person. This duty is subject to a “reasonable care” standard, which means that a dog owner must act with the care that a reasonable dog owner would apply in a similar situation. For example, it is probably reasonable for a dog owner to keep their dog on a leash when walking outdoors, even if this is not a statutory requirement (although this, in fact, is a statutory requirement in many municipalities in California). If a dog owner fails to do this, and the dog injures another either via scratching or a bite that does not physically come into contact with the victim, the victim may have a strong case for negligence. In contrast, it probably is not reasonable for a dog owner to prevent his or her dog from attacking someone who is attempting to mug the owner on the street. For example, if a dog attacks a mugger, injuring the mugger with its claws, the mugger cannot claim that the owner was negligent by failing to take care of the dog.

The second element of a negligence action under California law for dog bite cases is a showing that the perpetrator breached his or her duty. A breach of a duty would mean, for example, that the owner had a duty to keep his or her dog leashed while outside but failed to do so, or had a duty to warn others that the dog had a history of violence, but failed to do so.

The third element is a showing of causation: that the breach of the duty actually caused the injuries alleged. For example, the victim must show that, because the dog owner failed to leash his or her dog, the dog bit the victim’s bicycle tire, causing the victim to cash their bicycle and facture their arm. If, in contrast, the victim’s bicycle tire was already deflated, or the victim subsequently ran over a pothole flinging the victim from his or her bicycle which would have occurred regardless of the presence of a dog, a court would likely find that there is insufficient causation, even if the victim was actually being chased by a dog (or the dog had actually bitten the victim’s bicycle tire).

The final element to prove a negligence action is that actual, physical injuries occurred. Although many other injuries might flow from a dog bite (such as emotional damage from being chased by a large dog), at least some portion of the injuries sustained must be physical in nature. This can include, for example, physical damage to yourself or physical damage to property, like a bicycle.

Dog Bite Repeat Offenders

California also has specific laws that deal with dogs that have a history of biting. Under one statute, dog owners are legally required to take reasonable steps to remove the danger of future attacks from a dog that has bitten a human at least a single time. These statutes both impose civil penalties (for example, permitting anyone to sue the owner of such a dog with limited legal hurdles), and criminal penalties (imposing fines and possible jail time for owners who fail to prevent their dogs from biting others).

Finally, California has yet additional laws for dealing with so-called “dangerous” dogs. These are dogs that have forced someone to defend him or herself from aggressive behavior in at least two separate incidents in the past three years; or has bitten someone without provocation; or has killed or injured a domestic animal twice in the last three years. In the case of dangerous or vicious dogs (a dog that has “aggressively injured” or killed someone in the past; or a dog that has been determined by a court to be potentially dangerous and the owner failed to remedy this situation), California itself can impose requirements on the owner, such as that the dog be always kept indoors, that the dog always be kept on a secure leash when outdoors, or that the dog be kept only in a fenced yard that cannot be accessed by other animals or humans without the supervision of the owner. These restrictions are specific on the court’s holding and assessment of the danger of the dog.

In extreme cases, the dog owner could, him or herself, be held criminally liable for the actions of the dog. For example, if the dog owner actually knew that the dog was prone to bad behavior and failed to keep the dog under control (for example, if the dog had a previously aggressive incident), and the dog actually harmed someone, the dog owner could be held criminally liable for the acts, as though the owner him or herself had committed the acts.

Dog Bite Insurance

Quite frequently, dog bite cases are dealt with via insurance companies. Most homeowners, commercial, and residential tenants hold home or renter’s insurance with specific language regarding dog bites. In fact, according to some sources, nearly a third of all homeowner insurance liability claims paid out in any given year are as a result of dog-related injuries paid to guests who have been injured by the owner or tenant’s animals. The average cost of such a claim is over $30,000.

Insurance companies, as in the case of car accidents in Missouri, are notoriously stingy and complex in their means of compensation. If you have been injured as a result of a dog bite in someone else’s home, you will likely be forced to deal with that homeowner’s home insurance company, which will evaluate your claim and offer you a settlement in exchange for your promise not to sue the homeowner. The settlement will be based on the insurance company’s assessment of the value of your claim: for example, your hospital bills (if any), lost wages (if any), emotional damage, and so on. It is extremely important to realize that the insurance company’s offer is merely an offer: a proposal for you to consider. If you, your doctor, and your dog bite lawwer, believe that this offer does not adequately compensate you for your physical and emotional damages, you are entitled to simply reject or ignore this settlement offer, and pursue litigation directly against the homeowner.

Despite insurance companies being aware of California law regarding strict liability for dog bites, it is not uncommon for insurance companies to attempt to offer lower settlements under the rationale that the dog was not known to be dangerous, or had not otherwise bitten anyone in the past. It is therefore extremely important to realize that California’s strict liability law for dog bites does not impose different damages for dogs that have or have not been aggressive in the past. This means that your claim for injuries retains the same value regardless of whether the dog had attack someone in the past.

The complexities of dog bite or dog injury litigation in California mandate that an experienced California dog bite lawyer or attorney guide you through the complexities of fighting for your rights. Dog bites can leave both physical and literal scars, and obtaining financial compensation, fighting against insurance companies, and obtaining justice for your injuries is of the utmost importance.

Thompson Law Office represents victims of dog bite injuries. If you or someone you know has been injured by a dog, please contact our office for a free consultation with a dog bite lawyer to discuss your options and see if you have a case. Get the compensation you deserve to cover your associated medical expenses and pain and suffering.