Civil Code 3342 is the California dog bite statute. This section outlines when owners are responsible for injuries caused by their dogs. Unlike other states, California holds dog owners strictly liable for dog bites. This means they generally must compensate victims even if their dog showed no prior signs of aggression.
Section 3342 reads that “(a) 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.
(b) Nothing in this section shall authorize the bringing of an action pursuant to subdivision (a) against any governmental agency using a dog in military or police work if the bite or bites occurred while the dog was defending itself from an annoying, harassing, or provoking act, or assisting an employee of the agency in any of the following:
(1) In the apprehension or holding of a suspect where the employee has a reasonable suspicion of the suspect’s involvement in criminal activity.
(2) In the investigation of a crime or possible crime.
(3) In the execution of a warrant.
(4) In the defense of a peace officer or another person.
(c) Subdivision (b) shall not apply in any case where the victim of the bite or bites was not a party to, nor a participant in, nor suspected to be a party to or a participant in, the act or acts that prompted the use of the dog in the military or police work.
(d) Subdivision (b) shall apply only where a governmental agency using a dog in military or police work has adopted a written policy on the necessary and appropriate use of a dog for the police or military work enumerated in subdivision (b).”
There are exceptions to a dog owner’s liability, though. Some of them are found in Civil Code 3342, itself. Some of these defenses are when:
- The victim was trespassing on private property,
- The dog is a law enforcement animal,
- The victim assumed the risk, or
- The victim was partially at fault for their injuries.
In this article, our California dog bite lawyers explain:
- 1. What is California’s dog bite statute?
- 2. How is Civil Code 3342 different from a “one bite rule”?
- 3. What are exceptions to a dog owner’s strict liability?
1. What is California’s dog bite statute?
California’s dog bite statute is California Civil Code 3342. This statute makes a dog owner strictly liable for their dog’s bites if they happened in public or where the victim had a lawful right to be.
To prove a case under California’s dog bite statute, dog bite victims have to show:
- The defendant owned the dog,
- The dog bit the victim in a public place or while the victim was lawfully on private property,
- The dog bite hurt the victim, and
- The dog bite was a substantial factor in the injuries.1
1.1. What does strict liability mean?
Strict liability is a legal concept. It holds people liable for their conduct, even if they were not being negligent.
In most cases, California law requires victims to show that the defendant was acting negligently when they got hurt. When the defendant was abiding by all of the rules and was acting reasonably, their conduct could not have caused the accident and injuries.
Example: Joel is abiding by all of the rules of the road. He slides on a patch of ice and into Katrina’s parked car.
Under strict liability, though, victims do not have to prove negligence. Even if the defendant had taken all possible precautions, they can still be made to pay for an accident simply because the accident happened.
Example: Danielle’s dog Dillon is tame and docile, but she puts him in a crate before dinner guests come over. Somehow, Dillon bites through the wall of the crate and bites one of the guests.
1.2. What does it mean to be in a “public place or lawfully on private property”?
Victims have to be in public or lawfully on private property to utilize California’s dog bite statute.
A public place is anywhere that is accessible to the general public. It includes:
- Sidewalks, and
- Stores, during business hours.
Victims can also be lawfully on private property to file a claim. People are lawfully on private property, including the property of the dog owner, if:
- They have been invited there by the property owner, or
- They are performing a legal duty imposed by state or federal law.
Examples of people who are performing a legal duty under state or federal law include:
- Postal workers,
- Package delivery personnel, and
- Meter readers.
Invitations to come on the property can be express or implied. They can also be limited to certain parts of the home. Victims who stray beyond the bounds of their invitation can become a trespasser.
Example: A 5-year-old with his mother on a visit is told not to go into the back yard. He does and gets bitten by a dog.2
1.3. How badly do I need to be hurt to file a claim?
California’s dog bite statute holds dog owners strictly liable for all dog bites, no matter how minor. The victim’s skin does not need to get punctured by the bite.3
Example: A roofer is climbing a ladder when the resident’s 5-month old dog bites him ankle. The bite does not pierce the roofer’s skin, but it does make him fall from the ladder.4
1.4. Is Civil Code 3342 the only way to recover compensation for a dog bite in California?
No, California’s dog bite statute is only one of the ways that victims can recover compensation. Victims can also recover compensation by showing:
- The owner knew or should have known of the dog’s viciousness, or
- The owner was negligent in failing to prevent the harm.5
Civil Code 3342, however, is the easiest case to prove. It does not require proof that the owner did anything wrong. All that you have to show is that you were bitten and were protected by Civil Code 3342.
2. How is Civil Code 3342 different from a “one bite rule”?
California’s dog bite law is a strict liability statute. It imposes strict liability on the owner even if the owner did not know of their dog’s tendency to bite. This is different from so-called one bite rules in other states.
One bite laws only impose strict liability on dog owners only once they know of their dog’s tendency to bite people. Because this usually requires showing that the dog has already bitten someone, dogs in states that use one bite rules are said to get one free bite.
3. What are exceptions to a dog owner’s strict liability?
Civil Code 3342 includes several exceptions to its strict liability rule. Dog owners who can show that one of these exceptions is in play can avoid being held strictly liable for their dog’s bite.
The exceptions are:
- The victim was not lawfully on the private property and was a trespasser,
- The dog was a law enforcement animal,
- The victim had assumed the risk of getting bitten, and
- The victim was at least partially at fault.
3.1. The victim was trespassing
Civil Code 3342 only applies to people who have been bitten in public or while they were lawfully on private property. If they were unlawfully on private property, or were trespassing, then the owner of the dog cannot be held strictly liable.6
Trespassers can, however, still recover compensation by showing the dog owner was negligent or knew the dog was dangerous.
3.2. Law enforcement or government animals
Bites by dogs that are being used by a government agency for military or police work according to a written police policy do not subject the government to strict liability if:
- The dog was being annoyed, harassed, or provoked and was defending itself,
- The dog was helping to apprehend a suspect who was reasonably suspected of conducting criminal activity,
- The bite happened during a criminal investigation or the execution of a warrant,
- The dog was defending a police officer or someone else.7
However, if the dog bites an innocent bystander in any of these situations, it can lead to strict liability.8
3.3. Assumption of the risk – the “veterinarian’s rule”
Assumption of the risk is a defense to strict liability for a dog bite under Civil Code 3342.9 This is the veterinarian’s rule.
Some people have occupations that come with a foreseeable, known, and accepted risk of being bitten by a dog. By taking these jobs, these professionals have assumed the risk of being bitten. Because they knew what they were getting into, courts in California have decided that dog owners cannot be held strictly liable if their dog bites one of them.
Professionals who have assumed the risk of a dog bite and cannot use the dog bite statute to recover compensation are:
- Veterinarians,10 and
- Kennel workers.11
These professionals can still claim that the dog owner should be held liable because they were negligent. They just cannot rely on strict liability to hold the owner accountable.
3.4. Comparative fault
A defense to strict liability for a dog bite under Civil Code 3342 is that the victim was partially to blame.12
California’s comparative fault rules require juries in dog bite cases to assign fault to the dog and the victim. Any responsibility that the victim had for the bite reduces the damages that victims can recover. Victims can be partially at fault for a dog bite if they…
- Strike, or
…the dog that bit them.
Example: Andrea hates dogs. She is throwing rocks at one when it attacks her and bites her. Andrea suffers $10,000 in damages, but a jury finds her 45% at fault. She can only recover $5,500 in compensation.
Call us for help…
- California Civil Jury Instructions CACI 463.
- Fullerton v. Conan, 87 Cal.App.2d 354 (Cal. App. 1948).
- Johnson v. McMahan, 68 Cal.App.4th 173 (Cal. App. 1998).
- Johnson v. McMahan, Supra.
- See Drake v. Dean, 15 Cal.App.4th 915 (Cal. App. 1993).
- Fullerton v. Conan, Supra.
- California Civil Code 3422(b).
- California Civil Code 3422(c).
- Johnson v. McMahan, Supra.
- Nelson v. Hall, 165 Cal.App.3d 709 (Cal. App. 1985).
- Priebe v. Nelson, 140 P.3d 848 (Cal. 2006).
- Johnson v. McMahan, Supra.