Over 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs annually, with 800,000 of them bitten seriously enough to require medical attention. Each year, roughly 370,000 victims go to the emergency room for treatment of injuries due to being bitten by a dog. Section 3342 of the California Civil Code makes the owner of a dog legally responsible (“liable”) for all damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or legally in a private place. The owner can be held liable for injuries from a dog bite even if they occur on the dog owner’s own property, if the person who is bitten was lawfully upon the property, such as in the performance of his or her lawful duty. Persons falling in this category would be the postal carrier delivering the mail or a gas company employee reading the meter, among others. The dog’s owner is also liable for any bites by the dog while on his or her property if the person was on the dog owner’s private property by the express or implied invitation of the owner.
In earlier times, it was necessary to prove that a dog had a propensity to bite humans and the dog’s owner knew or should have known of this. Thus, the first time the dog bit anyone, the injured victim usually couldn’t recover for his or her injuries as there was no history of the dog’s propensity to bite humans. This was known as the “first bite free” rule. Now, however, the Civil Code expressly states that the dog’s owner is liable to any person bit by the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness. The dog’s owner is “strictly liable” for all of the dog’s bites (unless he or she has a valid defense), the first bite included.
If a dog has bitten a person, the dog’s owner must take reasonable steps as are necessary to prevent the dog from biting other persons. If a dog has bitten two people on separate occasions, an action may be brought against the dog’s owner to determine whether the conditions of the treatment or confinement of the dog since the bites have been changed to remove the danger of other persons being bitten. In such an action, the judge may order the removal of the animal from the area or even its destruction.
Although Civil Code section 3342 imposes liability against the dog’s owner for its bites, it does not mean that the dog’s owner cannot raise any defenses that may cut off or reduce his or her liability. For instance, if the person was pulling the dog’s tail, kicking it, or otherwise annoying it, leading to the dog biting him or her, the person may be banned from recovery or the amount of his or her recovery may be reduced under the legal doctrine of “comparative negligence.”
Young children are the most common victims of a dog bite. Children are especially vulnerable to being bitten by dogs because they do not understand the danger involved when a person approaches a dog, even if they have petted or played with the dog before without incident. Note that, generally speaking, a child under the age of 4 is generally considered by the law to be incapable of being comparatively negligent. So if the child is bitten or mauled by the dog, it is no defense that the child may have been teasing the dog, pulling its tail, or otherwise harassing the dog. Whether an older child is capable of understanding the risks involved in approaching a dog, petting it, pulling its tail, and so forth, is determined on a case-by-case basis.
A veterinarian, kennel operator, or his or her employees generally is barred by the “veterinarian’s rule” from suing under Civil Code section 3342 the owner of the dog for bites or other injuries inflicted by the dog while under their care. According to the veterinarian’s rule, a veterinarian or other person who by his or her profession works with dogs and other animals is held to have assumed the risk that he or she may be bitten or otherwise harmed by the animal. Nonetheless, an experienced dog handler who stopped along the road to assist in the treatment of a dog that had been hit by a car was not barred by the veterinarian’s rule, as none of the normal elements of a veterinarian-animal owner relationship applied. The dog handler did not voluntarily contract with the animal’s owner to render veterinary or other services to the dog and thus was not prevented from recovering for his injuries when the dog bit him.
However, if the dog’s owner (or owner of any domestic animal) knew or should have known of the dog’s vicious propensities, but fails to inform the veterinarian, veterinary assistant, kennel owner/operator, or their employees of the dog’s viciousness, the person injured by the dog or other domestic animal is not necessarily barred by the doctrine of assumption of the risk, since he or she could not be found to have assumed a risk of which he or she was unaware. In such a case, liability against the dog’s owner is not predicated on Civil Code section 3342 but rather on the common law, which requires that the owner knew or should have known of the vicious propensities of his or her dog. Applying the common law, if it was the first time the dog had ever bitten anyone or displayed aggressive behavior, the owner would not be liable for the injuries inflicted by the dog. But if the dog had bitten others or engaged in other aggressive conduct, and its owner knew or should have known of this, yet failed to warn the veterinarian, kennel operator, groomer, or their employees of this vicious propensity, the owner can be held liable under the common law for failing to warn the veterinarian, etc., of the danger posed by the dog.
It is not necessary for the dog to break the skin and inflict a wound to be considered a bite. Thus, a painter who fell off a ladder and sustained injuries could recover under Civil Code section 3342, where the dog bit his leg, which was covered by blue jeans. The court stated that if the dog’s jaws clamped upon a plaintiff’s trousers so that a part of the plaintiff’s leg was between the jaws, a bite occurred, notwithstanding the fact the dog’s teeth were separated from the plaintiff’s flesh by cloth. The court also noted that, arguably, even if the dog did nothing more than seize the jeans within its jaws and pull, causing the plaintiff to fall and suffer injury, the owner of the dog would be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.
Note that Civil Code section 3342 applies only to the owner of the dog. If, for example, the dog was under the temporary care of someone other than the owner, it will be necessary to prove that the dog had a propensity to bite people and that the person knew or should have known of this dangerous propensity.
Let’s say that you are walking down the street and a playful dog comes bounding toward you and jumps on you, knocking you to the ground, causing a broken limb or hip or head injuries. Most cities and counties have laws requiring dogs to be on leashes and under the control of their owner or walker when off the owner’s or caretaker’s property. The fact that this is the first time the dog has ever done something like this is no defense. The failure to have the dog on a leash, resulting in the dog’s causing injury, is called in law “negligence per se.” It is not a defense to a violation of the leash law that the dog is trained to obey verbal orders or hand signals.
In one case, a plaintiff who had been riding a scooter when a dog, left unleashed and unattended in violation of a local ordinance, collided with him, knocking him to the ground where he suffered serious injuries. In holding the dog owner liable for violating the leash law, the court stated: “The ordinance forbids the owner to allow his dog to be at large, except upon a leash. In our great, metropolitan area, it is no longer possible to enjoy many things which were part and parcel of human life in earlier times, and still are in suburban and rural communities. Whatever may be said about the affection that mankind has for a faithful companion, modern city conditions no longer permit dogs to run at large.” It is not necessary for the owner to know that his or her dog has a propensity to run at large, chase bicycles, or jump on strangers.
A leash ordinance is designed to protect the public from dogs running at large and where the violation causes injury to a person, he or she may recover for his damages against the owner. An ordinance forbidding owners to allow their unleashed dogs to be on pubic property imposes a “private duty” to prevent unleashed dogs from being present. The ordinance is violated even where there is no proof that the owner intentionally or willfully caused the dog to roam loose. The requirement that a dog must be kept on its owner’s property or on a leash is violated by any owner of a dog not so confined. A dog owner is in violation of a local leash ordinance when the dog is allowed to exist on public property without a leash, by failure of the owner to take the necessary action to prevent such an occurrence.
A landlord generally is not liable for the injuries inflicted by his or her tenants’ dogs (or other animal), unless the landlord has actual knowledge of the vicious nature of the tenant’s dog. The landlord’s duty of reasonable care to the injured third person depends on whether the dog’s vicious behavior was reasonably foreseeable. Without knowledge of a dog’s vicious propensities, a landlord will not be able to foresee the animal poses a danger and hence will not have a duty to take measures to prevent the attack. The requirement of the landlord’s actual knowledge can be satisfied by circumstantial evidence the landlord must have known about the dog’s dangerousness as well as direct evidence that he actually knew. In addition to knowing the dog’s dangerousness, the landlord must have the ability to prevent the foreseeable harm.
A landlord has no duty to inspect for a dog’s presence. Even if fence repairs, barking, and the presence of a “beware of dog” sign is circumstantial evidence that the landlord knew the dog was present, there was no evidence the landlord knew of the dog’s vicious propensities. Loud barking and jumping above a fence are characteristic canine activities, and do not provide evidence that the landlord had actual knowledge of vicious propensities. But if the landlord knows of the vicious propensities of the dog and has the ability under the lease to order them removed or to terminate the lease altogether, the landlord may be held liable for allowing the dangerous dogs to remain on the property without doing anything about it. For instance, if the landlord knows that tenant on a month-to-month lease has a dangerous dog, the landlord may be required to give the tenant notice either to get rid of the dog or, if that fails, give the tenant notice of termination of the lease.
Dog bites can range from a superficial bite that does not break the skin to a fatal mauling by the dog. In many cases, particularly young children, the dog attacks the victim’s face, inflicting severe and disfiguring injuries. Almost 80% of injuries to children bitten by a dog are to their face, neck, and head. Even a small dog can inflict serious injuries on a defenseless child. The dog may go after the arms and torso of a victim who is trying to protect himself or herself. In many cases, it will be necessary to get a tetanus shot, and if the dog is not current with its rabies shots, the dog will have to be quarantined until it can be tested. In the meantime, the victim will have to undergo a series of painful anti-rabies injections to ward off the disease.
Monetary damages that are recoverable in a dog bite case include medical expenses, including reconstructive surgery and damages for disfigurement, lost wages or loss of earning potential, pain and suffering, and property damage. More information on the types of damages that can be obtained in a personal injury case are discussed in the Damages You Can Receive Information Center. If the person is killed by the dog, then other damages may also be recovered. These are discussed in the Wrongful Death Information Center.
If you have been seriously injured or a loved one killed by a dog’s bite or mauling or other attack, it is important that you promptly retain an experienced personal injury law firm to represent you. The attorney will want to start a prompt investigation and gather evidence of the incident, including getting statements of witnesses while the event is still fresh in their minds.