Whether you own a dog in California or have a claim for a dog bite or other injury, you'll want to understand the state's laws on owners’ civil and criminal liability when their animals hurt someone or have been aggressive. Read on for the details.
California is one of the states with “strict liability” dog-bite laws that make pet owners responsible for most dog-bite injuries. When the victims sue to get compensation for their damages, it doesn’t matter whether the owners knew their dogs had ever bitten someone before. That means they can’t argue that they didn’t know their dogs could be dangerous, or that they took care to prevent the animals from hurting someone.
The law has some limits, however. The owner is strictly liable only if the injured person:
For the purpose of the statute, anyone who’s carrying out a legal duty (like delivering mail) is lawfully on private property.
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. However, this exception doesn't apply to victims who weren't suspected of participating in the alleged crime. That means that a crime victim may sue a city after being bitten by a police dog. (Cal. Civil Code § 3342 (2020); City of Huntington Beach v. City of Westminster, 57 Cal.App.4th 220 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 1997).)
California courts have held that owners are generally exempt from liability if their dogs bite veterinarians or vet assistants during treatment. (Priebe v. Nelson, 39 Cal.4th 1112 (Cal. Sup. Ct. 2006).)
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 under section 3342 (Johnson v. McMahan, 80 Cal.Rptr.2d 173 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1998)).
California’s strict liability statute won’t help victims who were injured by dogs that didn’t bite them—for instance, when the dogs attacked their bicycle wheel or chased them on a motorcycle and caused an accident. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they have no other options. Injured people may 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.
While California’s strict liability dog-bite statute applies regardless of the animal’s history, another state law makes owners responsible for taking “reasonable steps” needed to “remove any danger” of future attacks when their dogs have bitten someone in the past. Anyone can file a civil case against the owner of a dog who has bitten a human twice (in separate incidents) or the owner of a trained attack dog who has seriously injured someone with even a single bite. The court may order the owner to take steps to prevent future attacks, including removing the dog from the area or having it destroyed. 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 (2020).)
California also has a separate legal procedure for controlling dangerous dogs. Animal control or law enforcement officers must file a petition for a hearing when they suspect a dog is a threat. (That suspicion may be based on a sworn complaint from a member of the public.) If the court decides after the hearing that the animal is potentially dangerous, the dog 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. Animal control may destroy 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.
A dog is considered potentially dangerous if it has:
The law considers a dog vicious if:
(Cal. Food & Agric. Code §§ 31601-31683 (2020).)
Anyone who owns or has control over a dog may also face criminal charges when the animal injures someone while roaming at large, but only if the owner or keeper knew the dog was prone to “mischievous” behavior but didn’t keep it under control. The crime is a felony if the victim was killed and a “wobbler” (either a misdemeanor or felony) if the victim was only injured. (Cal. Penal Code § 399 (2020).)
Even if criminal charges are filed in connection with a dog bite, the injured person may still sue the owner for damages, as long as the civil suit is filed within two years after the injury (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 335.1 (2020)). The time period might be extended in some circumstances. (For details, see our article on when to sue for a dog bite.)
Dog owners may have one or more legal defenses in civil lawsuits over injuries caused by their animals. For instance, they might argue that the victims:
A different set of defenses may apply in criminal charges resulting from dog bites.
If someone is suing you over a dog bite or other injury that your dog supposedly caused—or if you are considering suing after being hurt by someone else's dog—you should consider speaking with a personal injury lawyer. An attorney experienced in this area can explain how California’s law applies to your situation and what defenses you might have if you're the defendant. If you’re dealing with a civil complaint over a dangerous dog or a court order to destroy your pet, you might want to consult with an animal law attorney. And finally, a criminal defense lawyer can help protect your rights if you’re facing criminal charges over a dog bite or other injury.