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Dog Owner Liability in CA

*****Disclaimer: This is not legal advice and is for educational purposes only. This does not create an attorney-client privilege.


Generally, pet owners are liable for the actions of said pets. They have a legal obligation to ensure that their dog does not injure anyone or damage private property. In California, owners of a dog that bites can be faced with both civil and criminal liability, and one does not preclude the other. In other words, if your dog bites someone you could potentially be charged with a crime and/or sued for damages by the victim. In a civil suit, the owner can be sued for the cost of medical expenses, time lost from work, and damages for suffering/pain.



California is one of the states with “strict liability” laws (Civil Code 3342) that make owners assume responsibility for all dog bite injuries. The bite does not have to break skin to be classified as a bite and therefore under the purview of this law. For example, injuries sustained while falling off a ladder due to a dog biting pants but not skin would still count. The stipulations of this strict liability in California applies only to bites (as opposed to scratches or some other canine-caused injury) and instances occurring in public or when the victim was lawfully present on private property. In some other states without this “strict liability”, the owner could potentially use the defense that they were not aware of their dog being vicious, or that they had taken precautions to prevent the dog from causing harm, however, Californians cannot make these arguments if they are sued.


The statute of limitations to file a civil lawsuit is within two years of the injury occurring. This timeframe is sometimes extended in cases wherein the victim is a minor. In these instances, the statute of limitations is tolled, meaning the two year limit to file a claim begins upon the 18th birthday. This time limit is because it is considered a personal injury case, thus its appropriate statute of limitations is California Civil Code 335.1. Failure to file a claim within this period will result in the case being dismissed.


If a dog attacks and bites someone, the court can require the owner to take actions to prevent any future attacks, in addition to the previously mentioned penalties in the form of criminal charges or financial reparations. The court can require that a dog that has been classified as dangerous be removed from the area or even euthanized. Less severe measures might include requirements to keep the dog indoors, on a secure leash, or in a yard fenced in to keep both the dog in and children out.


There are a couple levels of classification to be aware of the distinction between; one is “potentially dangerous” and the other is “vicious”. Dogs that have bitten without provocation and without severe injury, dogs that killed or injured two domestic animals within three years, or dogs that have forced people to defend themselves from aggressive behavior twice within three years are all classified as “potentially dangerous”. Dogs are considered vicious by law if they aggressively attack and injure or kill someone without provocation or if after being determined ‘potentially dangerous” by the court, the owner fails to meet the requirements set or the dog repeats the dangerous behavior.


There are a few legal defenses for California dog owners facing charges/ a claim over a bite. These defenses include if the victim was trespassing at the time of the injury, if the victim was partially at fault, or if the victim knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk. These defenses are the major ones for civil suits, while more defenses may apply in a criminal suit.


Sources:

https://www.shouselaw.com/ca/personal-injury/dog-bite/statute-of-limitations/

https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/free-books/dog-book/chapter11-4.html

https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/california-dog-bite-laws.html


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