California "Dog Bite" Laws

California law imposes “strict liability” for dog bites. The owner of a dog who bites someone is liable for that person's injuries even if the dog 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. 

Dog bites can cause serious and debilitating injuries. A victim who files a lawsuit may be able to recover compensatory damages for 

California has more dog bite claims than any other state.1 Our California dog bite attorneys assist victims across the state to file lawsuits in dog bite and dog attack cases. 

To help you better understand California's dog bite laws, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following, below:

enraged German Shepard baring its teeth

1. When can I get damages for a dog bite in California?

California Civil Code section 3342 is California's civil dog bite statute. CC 3342 makes dog owners liable for injuries to others as long as:

  1. The person did not provoke the dog, and
  2. 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.

2. Who cannot sue for a dog bite in California?

People may not usually recover damages for dog bites in California if:

  • They were trespassing on private property,
  • They provoked the dog,
  • The dog was protecting its owner or another person in accordance with California's laws on self-defense, or
  • The dog was a military or police dog being used appropriately in accordance with the agency's written policy.3

3. What damages are covered?

People who have been bitten by a dog in California are often entitled to compensation for their injuries. Compensatory damages may include, without limitation:

Families of people who are killed by a dog bite may be able to recover wrongful death damages or damages for loss of consortium in California.

4. Can I get punitive damages for a dog bite in California?

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 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.

muzzled pit bull
California requires owners to take reasonable steps to prevent harm when their dog has a history of biting

5. What if I can't afford a doctor?

People who don't 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've 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 dog's owner doesn't have insurance or assets.

6. Does California follow the “one-bite” rule?

Some states (such as Nevada) follow a so-called "one bite rule". These states do not impose liability for dog bites unless the owner is on notice that a dog has previously bitten someone or is other 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 dog'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. 

7. Do I need to file a police report in order to sue?

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 dog owners and dog bite victims to report dog bites to their local county health officer.

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.

8. Will the dog that bit me be quarantined?

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 dog will often 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 dog remains healthy during the quarantine period it will then be released back to the owner's care.

9. Will the animal be euthanized?

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 substantial physical injury.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.

La Mesa, California female animal control officer posing with her official truck

10. Does California homeowner's insurance cover dog bites?

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 dogs 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 dog owners to ask about breed restrictions when they are shopping for insurance.11

Dog breeds that are often subject to restrictions include:

  • Pit bulls,
  • Staffordshire terriers,
  • Dobermans,
  • German Shepherds,
  • Chows,
  • Akitas,
  • Alaskan Malamutes,
  • Siberian Huskies, and
  • Wolf hybrids.

11. How long do I have to sue for a dog bite in California?

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 dog bite or attack occurs.

A dog 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.

12. What if I was attacked by a dog but not bitten?

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

Dogfighting dogs3 optimized

13. Can I sue if another dog bites my dog?

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

A dog owner may also be to get compensation if the other dog's owner was convicted of animal cruelty charges. In such a case the court may award victim “restitution” as part of the dog 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. But California law permits recovery of punitive damages if the dog's owner or handler acted with "malice" -- for instance if he or she wrongfully ordered the dog to attack.18

14. Can I press criminal charges?

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):

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.

15. Defenses to dog bite lawsuits in California

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 dog's owner or handler (and was not, therefore, responsible for the dog).
  • The plaintiff was not injured.
  • The plaintiff's injuries were not caused by the dog.
  • The defendant exercised reasonable care with respect to restraining a dangerous dog.
  • The dog 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 dog 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…

female receptionist

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 at (855) LAWFIRM to discuss your case with a knowledgeable lawyer 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.

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

Legal references:

  1. Insurance Information Institute, Dog Bite Liability.
  2. 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."
  3. Same. See also California Civil Code 3342(b) – (d).
  4. 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."

  5. California Civil Code 3294.

  6. California Civil Code 3342.5(a).
  7. California Code of Regulations, Title 17, Section 2606.
  8. California Civil Code 3342.5(b).
  9. California Civil Code 3342.5(c).
  10. See endnote 1.
  11. Same.
  12. California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1.
  13. Delfino v. Sloan (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1429.
  14. Kimes v. Grosser, Case No. A128296 (CA Dist. 1 Ct. App., May. 31, 2011).
  15. Same.
  16. Same.
  17. 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."
  18. Civil Code 3294, endnote 5.
  19. Priebe v. Nelson (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1112.
  20. Same.

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