Is California’s Dog Bite Law a Strict Liability Statute?

California holds dog owners strictly liable for dog bites. This means victims of dog bites can recover compensation from the dog's owner even if the owner did nothing wrong. California's dog bite statute can be contrasted with other state statutes that follow the one bite rule. California's law is more victim-friendly than these other rules. It lets victims recover compensation for their damages in more cases.

In this article, our California dog bite attorneys discuss:

aggressive dog biting a person
California holds dog owners strictly liable for dog bites

1. What does it mean to be strictly liable for dog bites in California?

Strict liability means responsibility without fault. In the context of dog bite injuries, it holds the dog owner liable for a victim's injuries, even if the owner did nothing to cause them.

Example: Doug puts his always-calm dog, Grace, in her crate before dinner guests arrive. Somehow, Grace gets out and then bites one of the guests. Doug is shocked by this sudden behavior.

In California, strict liability for certain dog bites comes from California Civil Code 3342.

1.1. How is strict liability different from the one bite rule?

Strict liability is different from the one bite rule. Strict liability allows more dog bite victims to recover compensation for their losses.

While California uses strict liability for dog bite cases, other states have dog bite laws modeled after the one bite rule. The one bite rule only holds dog owners liable if they are aware of their dog's dangerous tendencies.

The most common way for owners to become aware of their dog's aggression is if the dog has already bitten someone. This one bite puts owners on notice that they should take care to keep others safe from their dog. If they fail to do this, the one bite rule will hold them liable for the injuries caused by the second, or any subsequent, bite.

Nearby states that use the one bite rule include:

  • Nevada,1
  • New Mexico,2 and
  • Wyoming.3

1.2. How is strict liability different from the negligence standard?

Strict liability is also different from the negligence standard.

Victims of dog bites can recover compensation under the negligence standard by showing that the dog owner acted negligently. The owner's negligence has to have caused the victim's injuries.

The negligence standard makes it more difficult for victims to recover compensation than strict liability. Victims under the negligence standard have to point to conduct by the dog owner that led to their injuries. This can be difficult.

Example: At a family gathering, Uncle Vick's dog, Cutter, keeps barking at 9-year-old Gretchen and lunging on his leash. Uncle Vick tries but fails to calm Cutter down. An hour later, Uncle Vick lets Cutter off his leash and he runs right at Gretchen and attacks her.

1.3. How are the negligence standard and the one bite rule similar?

The one bite rule is a definitive method of proving negligence on the part of the dog owner. Dog owners who know that their dog has already bitten someone know that their dog could be dangerous. Not taking extra precautions to keep people safe around their dog is such a strong sign of negligence that courts consider it conclusive. Courts hold dog owners strictly liable once their dog a bite in their past.4

no trespassing sign on a fence
There are exceptions to the strict liability rule

2. Are there exceptions to California's strict liability rule for dog bite cases?

There are 5 important exceptions to California's strict liability rules for dog bites:

  1. Victims who were trespassing,
  2. Law enforcement dogs,
  3. It only applies to dog owners,
  4. People who have legally assumed the risk of getting bitten by dogs, and
  5. Victims who were partially at fault.

2.1 Trespassers

California's dog bite statute only holds the dog owner strictly liable if the victim was lawfully on the property.

Trespassers – people who are on the dog owner's premises without an invitation or a legal right to be there – cannot hold the dog owner strictly liable.5 However, they may still pursue a dog bite case based on negligence.

2.2 Law enforcement animals

Victims who get bitten by dogs that are working for the military or the police cannot hold the government strictly liable.

An exception to this exception is if the dog bit an innocent bystander. Innocent bystanders can recover compensation under California's strict liability rules.6

2.3 Dog owners only

California's strict liability statute only applies to dog owners. If the person you are suing for a dog bite was only taking care of the dog at the time of the injury, they cannot be held strictly liable.

2.4 Assumption of the risk, or the “veterinarian's rule”

Dog owners facing a lawsuit based on strict liability can claim that the victim assumed the risk of getting bitten by a dog.7 Certain professions come with an obvious and foreseeable risk of being bitten by dogs. These professions include:

People in these roles cannot hold a dog owner strictly liable for their injuries. They have assumed the risks that come with their professions. However, they can still pursue compensation for a dog bite by showing the owner was negligent.

2.5 Victims who were partially at fault

Dog owners can also defend against a strict liability claim by arguing that the victim was partially to blame.10

California's comparative fault law reduces a victim's award by the percentage of fault they brought to their injuries. Dog bite victims can be partially responsible if they do any of the following things to the dog that bit them:

  • Kick,
  • Punch,
  • Strike,
  • Annoy,
  • Harass, or
  • Provoke.

3. Can a dog owner still be held liable for a dog bite without strict liability?

While California allows victims to recover compensation by holding the owner strictly liable, victims can also pursue a lawsuit under the negligence standard.

Example: Billy was trespassing on Joe's yard when Joe's guard dog attacked him. Joe watched the attack happen but did not call his dog off. Billy suffers life-threatening injuries as a result of Joe's decision to let the attack continue.

Call us for help…

california dog bite attorneys
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you have been bitten by a dog, you can benefit from legal help. Contact our dog bite lawyers to get started on your case today.


Legal References:

  1. See Harry v. Smith, 893 P.2d 372 (Nev. 1995).

  2. See Smith v. Village of Ruidoso, 994 P.2d 50 (N.M. App. 1999).

  3. See Borns v. Voss, 70 P.3d 262 (Wyo. 2003).

  4. Drake v. Dean, 19 Cal. Rptr.2d 325 (Cal. App. 1993) (“California has long followed the common law rule of strict liability for harm done by a domestic animal with known vicious or dangerous propensities abnormal to its class”).

  5. Fullerton v. Conan, 87 Cal.App.2d 354 (Cal. App. 1948).

  6. California Civil Code 3422(c).

  7. Johnson v. McMahan, 68 Cal.App.4th 173 (Cal. App. 1998).

  8. Nelson v. Hall, 165 Cal.App.3d 709 (Cal. App. 1985).

  9. Priebe v. Nelson, 140 P.3d 848 (Cal. 2006).

  10. Johnson v. McMahan, Supra.

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