California Dog Bite Injury Laws & Owner Liability Rules

Learn about a dog owner's liability for damages in a personal injury claim or lawsuit brought by the animal attack victim in California.

In this article, we examine several points of California law concerning dog bite injuries. We'll start with the deadline for bringing a dog bite lawsuit to civil court in California, and then we'll look at California's dog bite statute and its status as a "strict liability" state. Finally, we'll discuss some defenses a dog owner might raise when faced with a dog bite claim.

California's Dog Bite Statute of Limitations

Each state has a statute of limitations that places a deadline on personal injury lawsuits filed in the state's civil court system. California's statute of limitations on personal injury cases is two years. Since a claim for dog bite injuries would be considered a personal injury lawsuit, this means that the injured person has two years after the bite occurs to file the case in court in order to preserve their rights. If the case is filed after the two-year deadline has expired, the court will almost certainly throw it out without hearing it.

California's Dog Bite Statute

California's dog bite law, section 3342 of the Civil Code, states that the owner of any dog is liable for damages if:

  • the damages were caused by a dog bite, and
  • the person bitten was in a public place or lawfully in a private place.

The statute creates an exception for people who suffer dog bite injuries while a dog is carrying out police and military work. In order for California's dog bite statute to apply, the injury must be caused by a dog bite, not by some other behavior on the part of a dog.

For instance, suppose that a child is playing on the sidewalk when a dog jumps on the child, accidentally scratching the child's eye and causing damage. The dog bite statute does not apply, because the injury was not caused by a bite. However, California's negligence rules would apply to situations like these, and the argument would be that the dog owner failed to take reasonable steps to secure the dog.

California is a "Strict Liability" Dog Bite State

Different states handle dog bite cases in different ways. Most states are either "strict liability" or "negligence" states. California is a "strict liability" state for dog bites. This means that an owner cannot escape liability for a dog bite by claiming that he or she had no idea the dog would act aggressively. The owner is responsible for all damages resulting from a dog bite, even if the dog has never bitten anyone before. If you are bitten, you need only to demonstrate that the bite occurred while you were in a public place or lawfully in a private place. You do not have to show the owner knew the dog would bite or failed to use reasonable care to prevent the bite. But remember, you'll need to take these extra steps to prove your case if you were injured by a dog, but not by a bite (i.e. you were pushed down after a large dog jumped on you).

Defenses to California Dog Bite Liability

A California dog owner may raise the defense of "trespassing" against a dog bite claim. California's dog bite rule requires an injured person to be either in a public place or lawfully in a private place in order to collect damages from a dog bite.

An injured person who was trespassing unlawfully on private property when the bite occurred may not be able to collect damages. Government or military agencies may also raise two possible defenses: that the dog was carrying out its duties as a police or military dog when the bite occurred, or that the bitten person provoked the dog. But keep in mind that these defenses only apply if the dog is carrying out specific police or military duties at the time of the bite, and the agency responsible for the dog has a written policy for handling its working dogs.

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