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. In this article, we'll cover the details on:
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 (2022); 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 Cal. Civil Code 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 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.
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 (that is, euthanized). 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 (2022).)
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 (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.
Under California law, a dog is considered "potentially dangerous" if it has:
The law considers a dog "vicious" if:
(Cal. Food & Agric. Code §§ 31601-31683 (2022).)
The short answer: No, California's dog bite laws do not 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. In addition, the law specifically states that a person is lawfully on the dog owner's property at the express or implied invitation of the owner or, as noted above, when a person is carrying out a legal duty. So an owner will generally not be liable if a dog bites and injures a trespasser. (Cal. Civil Code § 3342 (2022).) However, a trespasser might be able to hold a dog owner liable if the trespasser can offer proof that the owner (or other person responsible for the dog) was in some way negligent—but that could be very difficult to prove.
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 (2022).)
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:
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 (2022).)
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 lawsuit is filed before the statute of limitations expires (see the following section for more on that).
All states have laws called "statutes of limitations" that set out specific time limits for getting a lawsuit started in civil 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 civil statute of limitations that applies to dog bite lawsuits. Instead, these cases fall under the 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. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 335.1 (2022).) The time period might be extended in some circumstances. (For details, 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.
Dog owners could 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 might apply if criminal charges result from a dog bite.
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 can use the features on this page to connect 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. You can also learn more about finding the right personal injury attorney for you and your case.
And, finally, a criminal defense lawyer can help protect your rights if you're facing criminal charges over a dog bite or other injury.