Details on when California dog owners could be legally responsible for bites and other injuries caused by their pets.
Whether you own a dog in California or have a claim for a dog bite or other injury, you’ll want to understand the state’s laws on owners’ civil and criminal liability when their animals hurt someone or have been aggressive. Read on for the details.
Because states can change their laws at any time, it’s always a good idea to check the current California statutes using this search tool.
When Dog Owners Are Strictly Liable for Bites
California is one of the states with “strict liability” laws that make pet owners responsible for most dog-bite injuries. When the victims sue to get compensation for their damages, it doesn’t matter whether the owners knew their dogs had ever been vicious before. That means they can’t argue that they didn’t know their dogs could be dangerous, or that they took care to prevent the animals from hurting someone.
The law has some limits. The owner is strictly liable only if the injured person:
- was bitten, and
- was either in a public place or “lawfully in a private place” when the bite happened.
For the purpose of the statute, anyone who’s carrying out a legal duty (like delivering mail) is lawfully on private property. Also, injured people can’t sue under this statute if they were bitten by police or military dogs that were either doing law enforcement work or defending themselves against annoying or provocative behavior. (Cal. Civil Code § 3342.)
If a dog grabs someone with its teeth but doesn’t break the skin, that could still count as a bite. 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)).
When Dog Owners Are Careless
California’s strict liability statute won’t help victims who were injured by dogs that didn’t bite them—for instance, when the dogs attacked their bicycle wheel or chased them on a motorcycle and caused an accident. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they have no other options. Injured people may able to receive compensation if they can prove that their injuries resulted from the dog owners’ negligence. For example, suppose a dog jumps on a child who’s playing on the sidewalk and scratches the child’s eye. If the victim’s parents sue, they must prove that the owner didn’t use reasonable care to control the dog, such as by keeping it on a leash or in a fenced-in yard.
California’s Laws on Dangerous Dogs
While California’s strict liability dog-bite statute applies regardless of the animal’s history, another law makes owners responsible for taking “reasonable steps” needed to “remove any danger” of future attacks” when their dogs have bitten someone in the past. Anyone can file a civil case against the owner of a dog who has bitten a human twice (in separate incidents) or the owner of a trained attack dog who has seriously injured someone with even a single bite. The court may order the owner to take steps to prevent future attacks, including removing the dog from the area or having it destroyed. These civil proceedings can’t be based on a dog’s history of biting trespassers, or on bites by working police or military dogs. (Cal. Civil Code § 3342.5).
California also has a separate legal procedure for controlling dangerous dogs. Animal control or law enforcement officers can file a petition for a hearing when they suspect a dog is a threat. If the court decides that the animal is potentially dangerous or vicious, the owner must meet certain conditions, including keeping the dog indoors, on a secure leash, or in a fenced yard that will keep the animal in and children out. Owners who violate these restrictions may be fined.
A dog is considered potentially dangerous if it has:
- forced people to defend themselves from aggressive behavior (while away from the owners’ property) in at least two separate incidents during the past three years
- bitten someone without being provoked, resulting in an injury that isn’t severe; or
- killed or injured a domestic animal off the twice in the last three years.
The law considers a dog vicious if:
- the animal aggressively injured or killed someone without being provoked, or
- a court already determined that it was potentially dangerous and either the owner didn’t meet the legal conditions or the dog repeated the dangerous behavior.
(Cal. Food & Agric. Code §§ 31601-31683.)
Dog owners may also face criminal charges when their animals injure someone. The law applies if the owner knew the dog was prone to “mischievous” behavior but didn’t keep it under control, and the animal killed or injured someone while it was roaming at large. The crime is a felony if the victim was killed and a “wobbler” (either a misdemeanor or felony) if the victim was only injured. (Cal. Penal Code § 399.)
Both Criminal and Civil Liability?
Even if criminal charges are filed in connection with a dog bite, the injured person may still sue the owner for damages, as long as the civil suit is filed within two years after the injury (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 335.1). The time period might be extended in some circumstances. (For details, see our article on when to sue for a dog bite.)
Defenses in Dog-Bite Lawsuits
Dog owners may have one or more legal defenses in civil lawsuits over injuries caused by their animals. For instance, they might argue that the victims:
- were trespassing at the time of the injury
- were partly at fault for the incident (which would reduce any compensation they receive under California’s “comparative negligence” rule), or
- voluntarily took a risk of injury.
A different set of defenses may apply in criminal charges resulting from dog bites.
Speaking with a Lawyer
If someone is suing you over a dog bite or other injury that your dog supposedly caused, you should consider speaking with a personal injury lawyer. An attorney experienced in this area can explain how California’s law applies to your situation and what defenses you might have. If you’re dealing with a civil complaint over a dangerous dog or a court order to destroy your pet, you might want to consult with an animal law attorney. And finally, a criminal defense lawyer can help protect your rights if you’re facing criminal charges over a dog bite or other injury.