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

California's dog bite statute is a "strict liability" statute. Strict liability means that a person is responsible for damages even if the person was not at fault or negligent.  He or she is legally liable because the alleged wrongful act occurred. In the context of California's dog bite statute, the dog owner is responsible for the injuries caused by his or her dog even if the owner was not at fault or negligent. 

Not all states apply strict liability to dog bites cases.  Some states (such as Nevada) follow a so-called "one-bite” rule.  The one bite rule requires that the dog owner have notice of the dog's aggressive nature before he or she can be held liable.  Therefore, a dog bite victim cannot collect damages unless he or she proves that the owner knew that the dog previously attacked someone or might be dangerous. 

In California, the dog owner is strictly liable regardless if the owner knows of the dog's aggressive nature or previous biting history. The dog owner is still financially responsible for all damages resulting from the dog bite.  

To help you better understand strict liability laws, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following:

 
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1. What is strict liability and how does it apply to a California dog bite case? 

States vary in the way they handle dog bite cases. A state legislature will either apply a "strict liability" or "negligence" theory of liability to a dog bite case.

California is a “strict liability” state.  Under the legal doctrine of “strict liability,” a dog owner may be held liable even if he or she was not negligent.  This means that an owner cannot escape liability because he or she was ignorant of the dog's aggressive or violent nature. The owner must pay all damages resulting from a dog bite.

Example: Tom owns a dog named Spot. Spot is a fun and friendly dog who has never exhibited signs of aggression towards people or other animals.  Because of Spot's friendly demeanor, Tom allows Spot to roam freely in the front yard.  One day as Jill walks past Tom's front yard, Spot approaches Jill and bites her. Although Spot has never showed signs of aggression, Tom is still liable under California's dog bite law.  

In the above example, Jill only has to prove that:

  1. She was injured by Spot, and
  2. She was on public property or lawfully on private property. 

If Jill proves these two elements, Tom is financially responsible for all damages resulting from the dog bite. This is true even if the Spot never bit a person prior to the attack.

2. When does strict liability not apply to a dog bite case? 

There are two situations in which strict liability does not apply to a California dog bite case:

  1. If the alleged victim was trespassing when the bite occurred, or
  2. If the victim "assumed the risk" of injury.

Let's take a closer look at each of these situations:

2.1. When the victim was trespassing

Section 3342 of California Civil Code only protects victims who are attacked in a public place or who are lawfully in a private place. That means that this protection does not extend to trespassers. Therefore, strict liability would not apply if the dog bite victim was trespassing on private property. 

A trespasser is someone who goes upon the premises of another without invitation, express or implied, and does so out of curiosity, or for his own purposes or convenience, and not in the performance of any duty requested by the owner of the property. [2] 

Example: Marcus enters onto Paula's property to retrieve a basketball that flew over the fence.  While retrieving the ball, Peanut, Paula's St. Bernard, attacks Marcus.  In this situation, strict liability would not apply because Marcus trespassed on Paula's property for his own "purpose of convenience", or to retrieve the ball. 

Trespassers will be unable to assert a cause of action under Section 3342. But they might be able to assert a negligence cause of action to collect damages for their injuries.  

Note also that the same strict liability standard does not apply to cat bite lawsuits under California law. In the case of a cat bite, the owner is generally only responsible if:

  • The cat had bitten someone before, or
  • The owner knew of the cat's aggressive tendencies but failed to warn the victim. 

2.2. Professionals who work with dogs: the "Veterinarian's Rule"

California's "Veterinarian's Rule" provides an exception to California's strict liability rule for dog bites. The rule is an application of California's "assumption of the risk" law.

The Veterinarian's Rule provides that people who work professionally with canines assume the risk of being bitten unless:

  1. The animal had previously bitten another person or displayed aggressive tendencies, and
  2. The animal's owner (or handler) knew about it, and
  3. The animal's owner failed to warn the worker about such history or tendencies.

Professionals to whom the Veterinarian's Rule applies include:

  • Veterinarians,
  • Veterinary technicians,
  • Dog walkers, sitters, and trainers,
  • Groomers,
  • Kennel employees, and
  • Other people who are paid to work with dogs on a regular basis.

3. What defenses can the owner assert under California's dog bite law? 

There are three common defenses a dog owner can assert to protect himself or herself from legal liability:

  1. Assumption of Risk
  2. Comparative Fault  
  3. Provocation

Assumption of Risk

Assumption of Risk is asserted if a dog bite victim voluntary and knowingly engaged in an inherently risky activity. 

Example: Tom brings Spot to the groomers to be cleaned.  During the cleaning, Spot bites the dog groomer. If a dog groomer tried to assert a cause of action under California's dog bite statute, Tom would argue that the dog groomer assumed the risk of being bitten by a dog because of the nature of his or her occupation.  

Comparative Fault

Comparative Fault occurs when the dog bite victim contributed fully or partially to his or her injuries.

Example: Tom leaves Spot tied up in his front lawn.  Sally walks onto Tom's property and attempts to pet Spot.  Spot begins barking and growling at Sally, but Sally decides to touch Spot despite these clear signs of aggression.  If Spot bites Sally, Tom can argue that Sally is at least partially responsible for her own injuries. So under California's comparative fault law (Civil Code 3342) she should not be able to recover damages.

Provocation

Provocation occurs when a dog bite victim provokes the dog. This typically includes some type of physical abuse towards the dog such as hitting the dog or throwing objects at the dog. But it can also include excessive teasing or roughhousing.

Have you or a loved one been attacked by a dog? Call us for help...

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If you have been bitten or mauled by a dog, we invite you to contact our California dog bite attorneys for a free consultation. 

Call us at (855) LAWFIRM to discuss your case in confidence with an experienced California injury lawyer.

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.

We may also be able to help if you were bitten by a dog in Nevada.


Legal References:

  1. Cal.Civ.Code § 3342 (a)
  2. Bauman v. Beaujean, 244 Cal. App. 2d 384, 389 (Ct. App. 1966).
  3. Nelson v. Hall (1985) 165 Cal.App.3d 709.

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