California dog bite law under Civil Code section 3342 makes dog owners liable for bite injuries that occur in public or on private property where the victim has the lawful right to be.
Unlike in other states, California dog bite law holds dog owners strictly liable for dog bites. This means owners generally must compensate victims of dog bites even if their dog showed no prior signs of aggression.
The language of the code section states that:
3342. (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.
There are exceptions to a dog owner’s liability under California dog bite law, including:
- The victim was trespassing on private property during the dog attack,
- The dog is a law enforcement animal,
- The victim assumed the risk of an animal attack, 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 law is California Civil Code 3342. This statute makes a dog owner strictly liable for their dog’s bites if:
- they happened in public, or
- the victim had a lawful right to be there.
To prove a case under California dog bite law, 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 that holds people liable for their conduct, even if they were not negligent.
In most cases, California law requires victims to show that the defendant was acting negligently when they got hurt. Under California’s strict liability laws, though, an injured person does 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 onto the property can be:
- Expressed or
Invitations can also be limited to certain parts of the home. Victims who stray beyond the bounds of their invitation can become a trespasser.2
1.3. How badly do I need to be hurt to file a claim?
California dog bite law holds dog owners strictly liable for all dog bites, no matter how minor. The victim’s skin does not need to get punctured for the victim to bring a dog bite claim.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 such as medical bills. 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 for personal injury attorneys to prove. You do not have to show 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 dog bite law imposes strict liability on the owner even if the owner did not know of their dog’s tendency to bite. This is different from 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 personal injury lawyers 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 the 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 applies can avoid being held strictly liable under California dog bite law.
Los Angeles dog bite attorney Neil Shouse explains that the exceptions include situations where:
- 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
The government is not strictly liable for bites by dogs that are being used by a government agency for military or police work according to a written police policy 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 under California dog bite law.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 the 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 under California dog bite law.
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…
Have you or a loved one sustained a dog bite injury? For help in bringing a dog bite lawsuit and to seek a settlement, contact us at Shouse Law Group. Our California dog bite lawyers to get started on your personal injury case and to safeguard your legal rights.
- 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 3342(b).
- California Civil Code 3342(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.