In California, dog bite victims can sometimes recover punitive damages if it can be shown that the person responsible for the animal acted with oppression, fraud or malice.
The plaintiff has to prove this with clear and convincing evidence. Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for heinous acts in order to deter them in the future.
Are punitive damages available in California dog bite cases?
Yes, punitive damages are available in a dog bite case in California. However, it is extremely rare for victims to recover punitive damages in these personal injury cases. This is because punitive damages are only awarded in California if the defendant’s conduct was:
- despicable, or
In a dog bite case, the defendant’s conduct will generally have to be malicious. Defendants acted with malice if they:
- intended to cause injury, or
- acted in a despicable way and with a willful and knowing disregard for the victim’s rights or safety.2
Conduct is despicable if reasonable people would look down on it as:
- base, or
A person acts with a knowing disregard of someone’s safety if they:
- are aware of the probable dangerous consequences of their conduct, and
- deliberately fail to avoid those consequences.4
Importantly, this malicious conduct has to target the victim. Punitive damages cannot be awarded for the defendant’s misconduct against someone else, unless it was for the same type of conduct.5
What is the standard of proof?
Victims of dog bites have to prove that the defendant acted with malice – or with oppression or fraud – by clear and convincing evidence.6
This standard of proof is higher than normal in a civil lawsuit. Most civil claims require a preponderance of the evidence to be successful. A preponderance of the evidence means that it was more likely than not that something is true.
Clear and convincing evidence means showing that it is highly probable that something is true. However, it is still a less demanding standard of proof than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard that is used in criminal cases.
The high standard of proof and the required depravity of the defendant’s conduct make it rare for punitive damages to be awarded in a dog bite case. Even if the victim was attacked by an animal known to be a dangerous dog, the defendant’s conduct often amounts to
- gross negligence, rather than
The purpose of an award of punitive damages is to punish and deter future wrongful acts by the owner of the dog.7
This is why punitive damages are rarely awarded in personal injury cases, and almost never awarded after negligent conduct. When punitive damages are awarded, the victim essentially recovers a windfall in the verdict.8
A California dog bite attorney can help victims show that there is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant or dog owner acted with malice.
What amount of punitive damages are allowed under dog bite law?
There is no set cap on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded in California. It is entirely within the discretion of the jury to award them to the victim.9 However, in order to award punitive damages to the victim, juries first have to award compensation, even if it is nominal.10
Additionally, some California appellate courts have said that punitive damage awards are generally supposed to be less than 10 percent of the defendant’s net worth.11
In deciding the amount of punitive damages to award, juries in California are supposed to consider the following factors:
- how reprehensible the defendant’s conduct was, including:
- whether the conduct caused physical harm,
- whether the defendant disregarded the health or safety of others,
- whether the defendant knew that the victim was financially vulnerable and took advantage of it,
- whether the defendant’s conduct involved a pattern or practice, and
- whether the defendant acted with trickery or deceit;
- whether there is a reasonable relationship between the amount of punitive damages being awarded and the victim’s harm, and
- the defendant’s financial condition, in regards to whether the amount would be enough to punish and discourage future behavior.12
A pattern or practice of egregious conduct can be shown with prior punitive damage awards against the defendant for similar conduct.13
Because the defendant’s funds are a factor, his or her financial records can become evidence. If the defendant refuses to comply with a court order for these records, he or she cannot challenge any subsequent award of punitive damages.14
Wealthier defendants may, therefore, face larger punitive damage verdicts than poorer ones. The discrepancy is used to ensure that the award deters the defendant from similar conduct in the future.15
If the defendant’s homeowners’ insurance company will cover the costs of the verdict, though, the focus will be on how reprehensible the defendant’s conduct had been.
A dog bite lawyer can put forward your best case for punitive damages.
What other damages are available in a dog bite lawsuit?
- medical bills,
- future medical expenses, if the medical care is reasonably foreseeable,
- lost wages and other lost income,
- any reduced earning capacity from an injury that will impair the victim’s ability to earn a living,
- pain and suffering,
- loss of consortium for the victim’s family and loved ones, and
- costs of repairing or replacing any property damage.
These are far from insignificant. Insurance claims for the medical costs of dog bite injuries averaged $50,425 in 2020.16 Victims who have the legal advice of a personal injury lawyer can maximize the compensatory damages in their settlement or verdict, and can pursue non-economic damages, like pain and suffering, as well.
Compensatory damages are also much easier for victims to win in a personal injury claim. California’s dog bite statute imposes strict liability on owners.17 This means that dog owners can be held liable even if the animal never bit anyone, before. They may be held liable even if there was no reason to believe that it was a vicious dog.
What are some common dog bite injuries?
Victims of dog attacks can sustain some serious injuries. Some of the most common dog bite injuries include:
- severe or life-threatening cuts or lacerations,
- broken bones or fractures,
- torn muscles, and
Not all of the injuries that stem from the attack happen at the scene. For example, many victims suffer serious or life-threatening infections. Because these conditions were caused by the injuries sustained in the attack, victims can recover compensation for them, as well.
Some injuries are not physical, either. Many victims sustain severe mental or psychological damage as well, such as:
- posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
- mental anguish, especially if the injuries left the victim with scarring or disfigurement,
- debilitating fear of dogs,
- chronic pain, and
- nerve damage.
By establishing an attorney-client relationship with a dog bite attorney from a reputable law firm, victims can recover the compensation that they need and deserve.
- California Civil Code 3294 CC and California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) No. 3940.
- CACI No. 3940.
- CACI No. 3940 and Stevens v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 49 Cal.App.4th 1645 (1996).
- California Civil Code 3294 CC.
- Neal v. Farmers Insurance Exchange, 21 Cal.3d 910 (1978).
- Adams v. Murakami, 54 Cal.3d 105 (1991).
- Sumpter v. Matteson, 158 Cal.App.4th 928 (2008).
- Cheung v. Daley, 35 Cal.App.4th 1673 (1995).
- Weeks v. Baker & McKenzie, 63 Cal.App.4th 1128 (1998) and Devlin v. Kearny Mesa AMC/JEEP/Renault, Inc., 155 Cal.App.3d 381 (1984).
- CACI No. 3940.
- Stevens v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., supra.
- Fernandes v. Singh, 16 Cal.App.5th 932 (2017).
- Bertero v. National General Corp., 13 Cal.3d 43 (1974).
- Insurance Information Institute, “Spotlight on: Dog bite liability.”
- California Civil Code 3342 CC.