California dog bite law imposes “strict liability” on owners. This means the owner of a dog who bites someone is liable in a civil lawsuit for the victim’s injuries even if the animal has never bitten before and the owner did nothing wrong.
This contrasts with the “one bite rule,” in effect in other states, by which the owner is only held liable if the dog has bitten someone before or has displayed violent tendencies.
California sees more dog bite lawsuits than any other state.1 Our California dog bite attorneys assist victims across the state to file claims in dog bite and dog attack cases.
To help you better understand California’s dog bite law, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following, below:
- 1. When can I get damages for a dog bite in California?
- 2. Who is ineligible to sue for a dog bite in California?
- 3. What damages are covered?
- 4. Can I get punitive damages for a dog bite in California?
- 5. What if I cannot afford a doctor?
- 6. Does California have a “one-bite” rule?
- 7. Do I need to file a police report in order to sue?
- 8. Will the dog that bit me be quarantined?
- 9. Will the animal be euthanized?
- 10. Does California homeowner’s insurance cover dog bites?
- 11. How long do I have to sue for a dog bite in California?
- 12. What if I was attacked by a dog but not bitten?
- 13. Can I sue if another dog bites my dog?
- 14. Can I press criminal charges?
- 15. Defenses to dog bite lawsuits in California
- The person did not provoke the dog, and
- The person was bitten in public or while lawfully on private property (i.e., not trespassing).2
Trespassers bitten by dogs in California generally are not able to recover damages.
People may not usually recover damages for dog bites in California if:
- They were trespassing on private property,
- They provoked the animal,
- The animal was protecting its owner or another person in accordance with California’s laws on self-defense, or
- The animal was a military or police dog being used appropriately in accordance with the agency’s written policy.3
People who have been bitten by a dog in California are often entitled to compensation for their injuries. Compensatory damages may include, without limitation:
- Medical bills,
- Physical or vocational therapy,
- Psychological counseling,
- Lost wages,
- Lost earning capacity,
- Pain and suffering,
- Scarring, and/or
- Loss of the use of a limb.
California law permits people to recover punitive damages in appropriate cases. Punitive damages -- also known as “exemplary” damages -- serve to punish a defendant who engages in particularly bad behavior.
To recover punitive damages the plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions amounted to “oppression, fraud or malice.”4
“Malice” occurs when the defendant acted “with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.”
Few cases involving dog bites and few damages have made it to California appellate courts, which establish a precedent for the lower courts.
However, there is nothing in the law that prevents a court from awarding punitive damages in a dog bite case.
If the bite victim was a minor (under 18 years of age), please see our page on compromising a minor’s claim in California.
People who do not have health insurance may be able to find a doctor willing to work on a medical lien in California.
We work with a number of doctors willing to treat dog bite victims on a California medical lien basis.
And if you have already found a doctor willing to work for a lien, we can help you negotiate the agreement so that you are not on the hook for huge medical bills if it turns out the animal’s owner does not have insurance or assets.
Some states (such as Nevada) follow a so-called “one bite rule”. These states do not impose liability for bites unless the owner is on notice that the canine has previously bitten someone or is otherwise dangerous.
California does not follow the one-bite rule.
California law imposes strict liability for dog bites. This means that a plaintiff does not have to prove that the dog had a history of biting or dangerous behavior or that the owner was negligent.
However, if a dog has bitten someone before, California law does impose an extra duty of care on the animal’s owner. Such an owner must take all reasonable steps to prevent other people from being bitten.6
Note also that with respect to cat bites, California law does impose a standard similar to the one bite rule.
No. But it may be easier to get punitive damages if a local animal control officer has investigated and determined that a dog is dangerous. And it may put the owner on notice so that the owner can take steps to ensure the safety of others.
Furthermore, California law requires both owners and bite victims to report dog bites to their local county health officer. As well, doctors in California are obligated to report dog bites for which they provide treatment.
Reporting a dog bite to the county health officer does not mean the dog’s owner will be prosecuted under California’s criminal laws. Usually, the county just wants to make sure that the dog does not carry the rabies virus.
California’s dog bite quarantine laws require dogs who have bitten someone to be quarantined, usually for ten (10) days.7 During this time, the county will ensure that the dog does not carry the rabies virus.
Often the animal will be allowed to remain at the owner’s premises during the quarantine period. Otherwise, the animal will be held at a county Animal Care Center.
If the animal remains healthy during the quarantine period it will then be released back to the owner’s care.
Typically, dogs who bite people will not be euthanized. The law does, however, permit euthanasia for dogs who bite in California if:
- The dog has bitten a person on at least two separate occasions,8 or
- The dog was trained to fight, attack, or kill someone and it bites someone even once and causes serious injuries.9
Such dogs can be taken from their owners and may be euthanized following a hearing.
The process of seeking euthanasia for a dog who bites can be initiated by any concerned individual -- including, without limitation, the dog bite victim, a government official or even a neighbor.
Many homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies cover dog bite injuries in California.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, dog bites are the most common liability claim on homeowners and renters insurance policies.10
But some companies exclude liability coverage for animals of certain breeds.
Not all insurers have breed restrictions on their homeowner and renter policies.
For instance, as of 2017, one of California’s largest insurers, State Farm, offers homeowner’s and renter’s insurance without breed restrictions.
But with an average payout of almost $40,000 per dog bite claim, it pays for owners to ask about breed restrictions when they are shopping for insurance.11
Breeds that are often subject to restrictions include:
- Pit bulls,
- Staffordshire terriers,
- German Shepherds,
- Alaskan Malamutes,
- Siberian Huskies, and
- Wolf hybrids.
The statute of limitations (time deadline) to sue for a dog bite in California is two years.12 The two-year period starts running on the date the bite or attack occurs.
A bite victim who fails to file his or her lawsuit within the two-year period usually cannot recover damages – even if the victim has been unable to identify the dog’s owner during this time period but later does so.
People who were injured by a dog but not bitten will generally need to show that the owner was negligent.
This means proving that the owner knew -- or should have known -- the dog could be dangerous and that the owner failed to take reasonable steps to prevent harm to others.
However, if the owner or handler violated a state or local statute meant to protect public health and/or safety, he or she will automatically be deemed negligent under California’s law on “negligence per se.”13
Yes, but not under California’s dog bite statute. Civil Code 3342 covers injuries to people. It does not allow people to sue when a dog bites another dog in California.
Under California law, dogs are considered the personal property of their owners.14 Therefore when someone’s dog is “damaged,” the usual cause of action is one for property damage (or a more obscure legal theory known as “trespass to chattels”).
The traditional measure of damages recoverable in a property damage lawsuit is the lesser of:
- The reduction in the property’s market value, or
- The costs of repairing the property (but not to exceed its market value).15
What damages can I get if my dog is bitten?
In recent years, California courts have begun acknowledging that reduction in market value may not be the most appropriate measure of damages when a pet is injured.
Instead, plaintiffs may be entitled to amounts the plaintiff reasonably spent trying to “repair” the property (i.e., veterinarian’s bills). The question is whether the amounts spent by the owner were reasonable.16
An owner may also be to get compensation if the other owner was convicted of animal cruelty charges. In such a case the court may award victim “restitution” as part of the owner’s sentence.
However, victim restitution for property damages is usually limited to the cost of repairing or replacing the damaged property.17
Can I get punitive damages in a “dog bites dog” case?
Yes, although such cases are rare. California law permits recovery of punitive damages if the owner or handler acted with “malice” -- for instance if he or she wrongfully ordered the animal to attack.18
Ultimately, it is up to the local District Attorney to decide whether to bring criminal charges against the owner of a dog who bites someone in California.
Possible criminal charges against the dog’s owner include (but are not limited to):
- Animal abuse or cruelty, Penal Code 597 PC;
- Dogfighting, Penal Code 597.5 PC;
- Failing to control a dangerous animal, Penal Code 399 PC;
- Creating a public nuisance, Penal Code 372 ;
- Unlawful tethering, Health and Safety Code 122335 HS; or
- Leaving an animal in an unattended vehicle, Penal Code 597.7 PC.
For more information on these crimes, please click on the appropriate link above or call our office for a free consultation with one of our California dog bite lawyers.
Defenses to dog bite lawsuits in California can vary a great deal, depending on the facts of the case. Common defenses include:
- The defendant was not the owner or handler (and was not, therefore, responsible).
- The plaintiff was not injured.
- The plaintiff’s injuries were not caused by the animal.
- The defendant exercised reasonable care with respect to restraining a dangerous dog.
- The animal was provoked by the plaintiff or a third party.
- The plaintiff assumed the risk of a dog bite under California’s “assumption of risk” law -- for instance because he or she was a groomer or veterinary technician. This is known as the “Veterinarian’s Rule” in California.19 Note, however, that the “Veterinarian’s Rule” does not apply if the defendant knew the dog was dangerous and failed to notify the plaintiff.20
Injured by a dog in California? Call us for help…
If you or someone you know was injured by a dog in California, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.
Call us to discuss your case with a knowledgeable personal injury attorney in your area.
We have offices throughout California, including in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, San Diego and Riverside Counties, as well as Central and Northern California.
- Insurance Information Institute, Dog Bite Liability.
- California Civil Code 3342(a) provides: “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. A person is lawfully upon the private property of such owner within the meaning of this section when he is on such property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this state or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States, or when he is on such property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner.”
- Same. See also California Civil Code 3342(b) – (d).
- See, e.g., Beverly Hills Municipal Code 5-2-111, which imposes strict liability on “[a]ny person owning, controlling, or having care or custody of any animal.”
- California Civil Code 3294.
- California Civil Code 3342.5(a).
- California Code of Regulations, Title 17, Section 2606.
- California Civil Code 3342.5(b).
- California Civil Code 3342.5(c).
- See endnote 1.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1.
- Delfino v. Sloan (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1429.
- Kimes v. Grosser (2011) 195 Cal.App.4th 1556.
- California Penal Code 1202.4(f)(3)(A) PC: “The value of stolen or damaged property shall be the replacement cost of like property, or the actual cost of repairing the property when repair is possible.”
- Civil Code 3294, endnote 5.
- Priebe v. Nelson (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1112.