California Dog-Bite Laws

Learn when California dog owners are legally responsible for bites and other injuries, the state’s rules for dangerous dogs, and more.

By , Legal Editor
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated 10/18/2023

California law covers the rules for suing a dog owner in civil court, when owners can be charged with crimes, and what happens to dogs that have bitten people or engaged in other dangerous behavior. California dog owners, and anyone who's suffered a bite or other injury in the state, should know how these laws apply to them.

When California Dog Owners Are Liable for Bites

Someone who's been injured by a dog might be entitled to recover compensation for their damages from the animal's owner. The rules for when owners are liable vary from state to state.

California is one of the states with "strict liability" dog-bite laws that make pet owners responsible for most dog-bite injuries. When a victim sues under the state's strict liability rule, it doesn't matter:

  • whether the victim can prove that the owner knew their dog might be dangerous (which is required in states that use the so-called "one-bite" rule), or
  • that the owner might have taken precautions to prevent their pet from hurting someone (which is a defense owners can use in lawsuits brought under a negligence standard).

(Cal. Civ. Code § 3342 (2023).)

California's strict liability law has some limits, however.

Lawfully present. A dog owner is strictly liable only if the injured person:

  • was bitten, and
  • was either in a public place or "lawfully in a private place" (potentially including the dog owner's property) when the bite happened.

For the purpose of the statute, anyone who's carrying out a legal duty (like delivering mail) is lawfully on private property.

Police and military dogs. Injured people can't sue under this statute if they were bitten by police or military dogs that were either doing law enforcement work or defending someone. But this doesn't apply when the bite victim wasn't suspected of participating in a crime. So, for example, an innocent bystander at the scene of a robbery might be able to sue if they're bitten by a police dog, but a robbery suspect can't. (City of Huntington Beach v. City of Westminster, 57 Cal.App.4th 220 (1997).)

Veterinarians. California courts have held that owners are generally not liable if their dogs bite veterinarians or vet assistants during treatment. (Priebe v. Nelson, 39 Cal.4th 1112 (Cal. Sup. Ct. 2006).)

What Counts as a "Bite"

If a dog grabs someone with its teeth but doesn't break the skin, that could still count as a bite. In a case where a worker fell from his ladder after a dog closed its jaws on his pants, the court held that the animal's owner was liable for the injuries. (Johnson v. McMahan, 80 Cal.Rptr.2d 173 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1998).)

When Dogs Bite Trespassers

California's dog-bite laws generally don't protect trespassers. California's strict liability statute applies only when a dog bites someone who was in a public place or "lawfully" on the private property where the bite occurs.

The law says that a person is lawfully on a dog owner's property when:

  • the owner has actually or implicitly invited them, or
  • the person is carrying out a legal duty (like delivering the mail).

So, an owner will generally not be liable if their dog bites and injures a trespasser. (Cal. Civ. Code § 3342 (2023).)

That said, a trespasser who can offer proof that the dog owner was in some way negligent might be able to hold the owner liable. That could be very difficult to prove, though.

In addition, the state's dangerous-dog laws specifically say that a dog cannot be declared potentially dangerous or vicious based on the dog's history of biting a trespasser. (Cal. Food & Agric. Code § 31626 (2023).)

Owners' Liability for Non-Bite Injuries

California's strict liability statute won't help victims who were injured by dogs that didn't bite them. For instance, if a dog causes an accident by attacking someone's bicycle wheel, or by chasing a motorcyclist, strict liability doesn't apply.

But that doesn't necessarily mean a victim has no other options. Injured people might be able to receive compensation if they can prove that their injuries resulted from the dog owners' negligence.

For example, suppose a dog jumps on a child who's playing on the sidewalk and scratches the child's eye. If the victim's parents sue, they must prove that the owner didn't use reasonable care to control the dog, such as by keeping it on a leash or in a fenced-in yard.

California's Statute of Limitations for Dog-Bite Cases

All states have laws called "statutes of limitations" that set out specific time limits for getting a lawsuit started in court. The deadline differs depending on the type of case you want to file, but the consequences of missing the deadline are always serious. If you file the claim too late, the court will almost certainly dismiss your case (unless some rare exception applies).

California doesn't have a specific statute of limitations that applies to dog-bite lawsuits. Instead, these cases fall under the state's statute of limitations for assault, battery, or personal injury. This law says that a plaintiff in a dog-bite civil suit must file the case within two years of the date of the injury. The time period might be extended in some circumstances. (For more, see our article on when to sue for a dog bite.)

Note that different deadlines will apply if the person who owns or controls the dog is facing criminal charges.

(Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 335.1 (2023).)

Possible Defenses in California Dog-Bite Lawsuits

Dog owners could have one or more legal defenses in civil lawsuits over injuries caused by their animals. For instance, they might argue that a victim:

  • was trespassing at the time of the injury
  • was partly at fault for the incident, or
  • voluntarily took a risk of injury.

Sometimes a successful defense means that an owner isn't liable and doesn't owe the plaintiff any damages. Under California's "pure" comparative negligence rule, a defendant can also reduce their liability (and the money they owe a plaintiff) in proportion to the defendant's own responsibility for an accident. (Li v. Yellow Cab Co., 13 Cal.3d 804 (Cal. 1975).)

A different set of defenses might apply if criminal charges result from a dog bite.

Criminal Charges for Dog Bites

Anyone who owns a dog may also face criminal charges when the animal injures someone while roaming at large, but only if the owner:

  • knew the dog was prone to "mischievous" behavior, and
  • didn't keep it under control.

The crime is a felony if the attack victim dies and a "wobbler" (either a misdemeanor or felony) if the victim was only injured.

Even if criminal charges are filed in connection with a dog bite, the injured person may still sue the owner for damages.

These criminal penalties can also apply to someone other than the owner (like a pet sitter or a dog walker) who has "custody or control" of the animal when it injures someone.

(Cal. Penal Code § 399 (2023).)

California's Rules for Dangerous Dogs

California's strict liability dog-bite statute applies regardless of the animal's history. But the state has other laws that make owners responsible for protecting the public from a pet that has previously bitten someone or engaged in other dangerous behavior.

These laws also allow the state to impose serious consequences on the dog—including euthanasia in the most serious cases.

Civil Hearings for Dogs That Have Bitten Someone

Both private citizens and local government attorneys can start legal proceedings against the owner of a dog that:

  • has bitten a human twice (in separate incidents), or
  • is a trained attack dog that has seriously injured someone with even a single bite.

These hearings are different from a lawsuit. In a lawsuit a plaintiff is asking for money to compensate them for injuries they say they've suffered. The purpose of these hearings, though, is to allow a court to:

  • hear evidence about the dog's biting incidents, and
  • issue orders aimed at preventing another attack.

The court's orders can include things like removing the dog from the area or having it "destroyed" (that is, euthanized). But these civil proceedings can't be based on a dog's history of biting trespassers, or on bites by working police or military dogs.

(Cal. Civil Code § 3342.5 (2023).)

Proceedings for Dangerous and Vicious Dogs

California also has a separate legal procedure for controlling potentially dangerous and vicious dogs. This process is similar to the one for dogs that have bitten someone, but there are a couple of important differences:

  • Private citizens can't ask for a hearing. The dog-bite hearing process can be started with a complaint from a member of the public. A hearing for a potentially vicious or dangerous dog can only be requested by a law enforcement or animal control officer. (A member of the public can still file a complaint that can be used by an officer to explain why a hearing is necessary.)
  • No bite is required. A hearing can be held if a law enforcement or animal control officer investigates and thinks there's probable cause that a dog is potentially dangerous or vicious—even if the dog hasn't bitten anyone.

(Cal. Food & Agric. Code § 31621 (2023).)

California law defines when a dog is "potentially dangerous" or "vicious." These definitions are used:

  • by officers to decide if they need to request a hearing for a dog, and
  • by courts to decide what should happen to a dog and what requirements should be imposed on its owner.

A dog is "potentially dangerous" if it has:

  • forced people to defend themselves from unprovoked, aggressive behavior (while away from the owners' property) in at least two separate incidents during the past three years
  • bitten someone without being provoked, resulting in an injury that isn't severe, or
  • killed or injured a domestic animal without provocation twice in the last three years.

If the court decides that the animal is potentially dangerous, then it must be kept indoors, in a fenced yard that will keep the animal in and children out, or on a secure leash controlled by a responsible adult.

(Cal. Food & Agric. Code §§ 31602 (2023); Cal. Food & Agric. Code §§ 31642 (2023).)

A dog is "vicious" in two situations:

  • it has aggressively injured or killed someone without being provoked, or
  • a court has already declared the dog potentially dangerous, and either the animal repeats that dangerous behavior, or the owner disobeys court orders about how to protect the public from their pet.

Animal control may destroy (euthanize, in other words) a vicious dog if the court finds that the animal poses a significant threat to the public. The court may also prohibit the owner from having any dog for up to three years.

If a vicious dog is not destroyed, the court must impose conditions on controlling the animal to protect the public. Owners or keepers of dangerous or vicious dogs will be fined for any violations of these restrictions.

(Cal. Food & Agric. Code §§ 31603 (2023); Cal. Food & Agric. Code §§ 31645 (2023); Cal. Food & Agric. Code §§ 31646 (2023).)

Getting Help With Your Dog-Bite Case

Both owners and victims should know the basics of how dog-bite liability works and what to do after an incident. It's also important to understand how California law applies to you. Especially in serious cases, you might want to find a local attorney with the right experience to assist with your case.

Owners should also keep in mind that a criminal defense lawyer can help protect their rights if they're facing criminal charges over a dog bite or other injury.

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