Who is Liable for Dog Bites in California?
If you or a loved one has been bitten or otherwise injured by a dog, it is important to know who may be liable in order receive full compensation for those injuries.
Strict Liability for Dog Bites – Civil Code § 3342
Civil Code § 3342(a) imposes strict liability on the owner of any dog that bites someone who is lawfully on public or private property, 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.
Because an owner is strictly liable for damages any time his or her dog bites someone, it is not necessary for the injured person to show the dog had a history of biting people or that the owner knew, or should have known, that the dog had a propensity to bite.
Section 3342 imposes liability on the owner of the dog regardless of whether the dog is restrained or running loose when the bite occurs. (Davis v Gaschler (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1392, 1399.)
A person is lawfully upon the private property of the owner when he or she is on the property in the performance of any official duty (such as a postal carrier or a delivery person), or when he or she is on the property upon the express or implied invitation of the owner.
The definition of “lawfully upon the private property of such owner” prevents trespassers from obtaining recovery under the dog bite statute. (Fullerton v. Conan (1948) 87 Cal.App.2d 354, 358).
Common Law Strict Liability
In addition to statutory liability under Civil Code § 3342, people who own, keep, or control animals with unusually dangerous natures or tendencies can be held responsible for the harm that their animals cause to others, no matter how carefully they guard or restrain their animals. (CACI 462.) A common law strict liability cause of action may be maintained against the owner of a dog or other domestic animal that bites or injures someone if the owner knew or had reason to know of the dog’s vicious propensities. (Priebe v. Nelson (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1112, 1115.)
If the owner knew or should have known of his dog’s vicious propensities and failed to inform the injured person of those propensities, the owner could be found to have exposed the injured to an unknown risk and thereby be held strictly liable at common law for the injuries.
Holding an owner “strictly liable” for injuries suffered as a result of injuries caused by a dog is important because the defense of primary assumption of risk (with certain important exceptions discussed further below), that is otherwise available in most negligence cases, would not bar an injured person’s claims under these circumstances since he or she could not be found to have assumed a risk of which he or she did not know. (Id. at pp. 1115-1116.)
Not Necessary for a Bite to Break the Skin
The owner of a dog may be liable even if the bite doesn’t actually break the victim’s skin. In Johnson v McMahan (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 173, liability was imposed against the owner of a dog that bit only the pant leg but not the skin of a worker who was standing on a ladder at the time, which caused him to fall off the ladder and suffer injuries as a result of the fall.
Liability for Injuries Extends Beyond “Bites
A person does not have to be bitten for an owner to be liable for injuries caused by the dog, and a dog’s excessive playfulness or exuberance can result in strict liability. “If the possessor knows that his dog has the playful habit of jumping up on visitors, he will be liable without negligence when the dog jumps on a visitor, knocks him down and breaks his hip.” (Drake v. Dean (1993) 15 Cal.App.4th 915, 922.) In Drake, an elderly woman was knocked down by a 65-pound pit bull when she entered the property to hand out religious material. She broke her hip and suffered lacerations.
In Northon v. Schultz (1955) 130 Cal.App.2d 488, the owner of an excitable dog that had the habit of jumping on people and was kept in the basement of the house as much as possible for that reason, was liable for injuries when the dog excitedly ran into the legs of the plaintiff and caused injuries.
In cases that do not involve bites, a dog owner may be held liable for negligence predicated on the characteristics of the animal which, although not abnormal to its class, create a foreseeable risk of harm. As to those characteristics, the owner has a duty to anticipate the harm and to exercise ordinary care to prevent the harm. Drake v. Dean (1993) 15 Cal.App.4th 915, 929.
Negligence / Negligence Per Se – Leash Law Violation
Negligence against the owner of a dog may be established if the owner was in violation of a local leash law. For example, in Delfino v. Sloan (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1429, 1438, the owner of a dog was liable for the plaintiff’s injuries as a result of violating a local leash ordinance when his dog attacked the wheel of a bicycle the plaintiff was riding, causing him to fall.
In Brotemarkle v. Snyder (1950) 99 Cal. App.2d 388, 389-390, the owner’s violation of a local leash ordinance constituted negligence per se when his unleashed dog collided with the plaintiff, who had been riding a scooter at the time, causing the plaintiff to suffer injuries as a result.
Liability for Caretakers/Keepers of Dogs
Unlike owners, keepers of dogs (such as dogsitters dog walkers) may be held liable for dog bites only where it can be shown that he or she had prior knowledge of the vicious propensities of the animal. (See Buffington v. Nicholson (1947) 78 Cal.App.2d 37, 42)
Defenses to Strict Liability – Primary Assumption of Risk
Although owners of dogs that bite are generally held strictly liable for damages in California, under certain circumstances the defense known as “assumption of risk” may apply to absolve the owner of liability when his or her dog bites another person. Assumption of risk can be used as a defense when the victim of a dog bite is working as a veterinarian or in some other professional capacity related to the handling of dogs.
For example, a veterinarian, veterinary assistant or kennel worker may be found to have assumed the risk of being bitten by a dog as a normal part of his or her occupation (known as the “veterinarian’s rule”), rendering imposition of strict liability under Civil Code § 3342 unavailable. (Priebe v. Nelson (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1112, 1132.).
In Farnam v. State of California (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 1448, the doctrine of primary assumption of risk barred a police offer’s lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol as a result of being bitten by one of the Highway Patrol’s service dogs which the police officer claimed was handled negligently.
Residential Landlord Liability
In California, a landlord of a non-commercial, residential dwelling may be held liable for a tenant dog owner’s dog attack or bite on person only if:
(1) the landlord had actual knowledge that the dog had a vicious propensity before the attack; and
(2) the landlord had the ability to timely prevent the foreseeable harm by having the right to have dog removed from the premises or evicting the tenant if the tenant refuses to remove the dog. (See Uccello v. Laudenslayer (1975) 44 Cal.App.3d 504, 514.)
Actual knowledge on the part of a landlord may be shown by direct evidence or circumstantial evidence. For example, it may be reasonably inferred that a landlord who visits his or her rental property with some regularity where aggressive dogs are kept by the tenants observed aggressive behavior and has actual knowledge of the dangerous nature of the dogs. (Donchin v. Guerrero (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 1832, 1836.)
Where it is foreseeable that the dogs kept by a tenant may cause injuries to another and the landlord has the opportunity or means to insist the tenant not keep dangerous dogs on the property (or may evict the non-compliant tenant), the landlord may be held liable for injuries to a third party caused by the dogs if he or she fails to exercise that authority and remove the danger from the property. Id.
A landlord may also be liable for injuries caused by a dog on a rental property as a result of defects in the property itself, such as a broken fence that allows a dog to escape. In Donchin v. Guerrero (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 1832, a tenant’s dogs attacked the plaintiff four blocks away from the rental property where the dogs were kept. The court held that the landlord could be liable in this case, even without prior knowledge of the vicious propensities of the dog, if the dog escapes the landlord’s property and injures someone outside of the property.
Commercial Landlord Liability
Courts apply a different standard for commercial landlords than residential landlords. Unlike a residential landlord who may liable only where actual knowledge of a dangerous dog on a rental property is established, a commercial landlord is liable for a dog attack or bite if he or she knew or reasonably should have known (i.e. has actual or constructive knowledge) of the dog’s viciousness prior to the attack, and could have removed the dog before it injured the victim. (Portillo v. Aiassa (1994) 27 Cal.App.4th 1128.)
In Portillo, a case in which a liquor store guard dog owned by the tenant bit a customer, the court held that a landlord has a duty to exercise reasonable care in the inspection of his commercial property and to remove a dangerous condition, which includes a dog, from the premises, if he knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care would have known, the dog was dangerous and usually present on the premises.
Insurance Coverage for Dog Bites
Many homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies cover dog bite injuries, and dog bites are one of the most common liability claims on homeowners and renters insurance policies. However, some insurance carriers exclude liability coverage for certain breeds that the carriers consider dangerous, such as Pit Bulls, Dobermans and several other breeds that have reputations for being aggressive or dangerous.
Automobile liability insurance policies usually do not cover instances where a dog escapes from a parked vehicle and bites a pedestrian. (State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v Grisham (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 563.)
Maximizing Your Recovery
If you are a loved one has suffered injuries as a result of being bitten or knocked down by a dog, you need an experienced attorney in all aspects of dog bite litigation to fight for your rights when it comes to taking on big insurance carriers. We are one of the premier dog bite attorneys in Northern California and have held numerous clients receive the maximum compensation after they have suffered injuries caused by dogs.