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Dog Bites and Strict Liability in California

by | Dec 19, 2014 | Firm News |

We all love dogs. Well, most of us anyways. There is scientific evidence that supports that dogs are great mental health companions. Socially, they are important to a lot of dog owners’ lives. Despite all of the love, dogs can also cause harm to individuals. Indeed, when I was young, and in Tennessee, a dog bit me. There were medical bills, and trauma that followed (even to this day at times).

Like other injury accidents, an owner of a dog can be sued for a dog bite. Under the common law, or laws developed through a number of cases, dog owners were routinely sued under a “strict liability” theory because their dog caused an injury to another. “Strict liability” means that the injured party did not need to prove negligence. It was much easier to prevail.

Dog bite lawsuits pursuant to strict liability under the common law required that the “domestic animal” exhibit dangerous propensities. Typically, dangerous propensities were proven by previous incidents when the dog harmed someone else. But, a dangerous propensity was also shown when the owner knew or should have known that the domestic animal could have caused injury to another person. Domestic animals also included cats, snakes, horses, and other pets. It’s important to note that there was a distinction — with wild animals.

If an owner of an exotic pet injured someone else, they could be held strictly liable without the dangerous propensity element. Thus, if a Las Vegas magician’s tiger mauled someone, the magician could be held strictly liable even if the tiger never exhibited signs of having a dangerous nature before the incident. Contrast with the domestic animal lawsuit, a defendant could prevail if he could show that the domestic animal never exhibit dangerous propensities.

Fast forward to today. California enacted statutory law, which provides for strict liability in dog bite cases. There is no need to prove “dangerous propensities.” California Civil Code 3342(a) states, in part that:

“The owner of any dog is liable for the 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.”

Does this statute prevent defenses? What if the dog was provoked by the actions of the injured party before the dog bite? Nothing in the Civil Code prevents a defendant from raising “comparative fault” or “assumption of risk” defenses. Therefore, if the plaintiff was a bad apple who hit the dog, the defendant dog owner may have a good case against the mean injured plaintiff.

In the event that you, or someone you know, was injured by a dog bite, it is wise to retain an experienced persona injury attorney. A lot of dog bites are serious. In some instances, plastic surgery is required. Experienced counsel can pursue a claim, most often with a homeowner’s insurance policy, after a dog bite. Dogs are important to our lives but medical bills and pain and suffering should be addressed, if you, or someone you know, was a victim of a dog bite. We welcome your calls and questions.