When the Dog Bites

dog_98326904California’s dog-bite statute, CC §3342, imposes strict liability on dog owners with some interesting twists.

California law is very strict about biting dogs, i.e., “strict liability.” A dog owner is liable for damages suffered by anyone who’s bitten by the dog when in public or while lawfully in a private place, regardless of the dog’s prior viciousness or the owner’s knowledge of that viciousness.

The law seems straightforward, but there are also some interesting aspects to the dog-bite statute you may not know:

Injury doesn’t have to come from the actual bite. A dog bite that causes injury is actionable under California law even if the bite doesn’t actually break the victim’s skin or injure tissue. Here’s an example of how a bite can lead to non-bite injury: In Johnson v McMahan (1998) 68 CA4th 173, 80 CR2d 173, the dog’s jaws closed around the plaintiff’s leg, which caused him to fall off a ladder and get injured.

Liability stands even if the dogs is tied up. The dog-bite statute imposes liability on the owner regardless of whether the dog is restrained or running loose when the bite occurs. Davis v Gaschler (1992) 11 CA4th 1392, 1399, 14 CR2d 679.

There are exceptions for some working dogs. The dog-bite statute limits the liability of governmental agencies using dogs in military or police work. It doesn’t apply if the biting occurs while the dog is either

  • defending itself from an annoying, harassing, or provoking act, or
  • assisting a public employee in certain police work like apprehending a suspect or executing a warrant.

There are limits to this immunity and it applies only when the governmental agency has adopted a written policy on the “necessary and appropriate use of a dog” for such work. CC §3342(d).

Car insurance won’t cover an escaped dog who bites. A dog owner’s automobile liability insurance policy doesn’t usually insure the owner against liability when his or her dog escapes from a parked vehicle and bites a pedestrian. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v Grisham (2004) 122 CA4th 563, 18 CR3d 809.

Animal workers are out of luck. Primary assumption of risk has been applied as a complete defense in an action by a kennel worker bitten while exercising a boarded dog, or a veterinarian injured while professionally examining or treating an animal. Priebe v Nelson (2006) 39 C4th 1112, 47 CR3d 553. The owner doesn’t owe any duty of care to the veterinarian or kennel worker unless the owner is hiding or misrepresenting the animal’s propensities or is so reckless as to fall totally outside the range of behavior ordinarily expected of those who use veterinary and boarding kennel services.

Did you know that dog bite claims account for more than a third of all homeowner’s insurance liability claims paid out? This is definitely an issue every attorney should know about.

For more on tort liability for the acts of human’s best friend and many other animal friends, check out CEB’s California Tort Guide, chap 3. And because animal issues are often the subject of neighbor disputes, CEB has an entire chapter on domestic animals in our new book Neighbor Disputes: Law and Litigation.

When handling a dog bite case, having sample forms will make it much easier for you. CEB’s new California Tort Forms From Expert Litigators (chap 1) includes plaintiff and defendant forms for animal cases of all types.

Related CEB blog posts:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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