California Dog Bite Laws

A California dog owner's liability for bite injuries, the deadline for filing a dog bite lawsuit in the state's courts, and more.

Whether you're a dog owner in California, or you've been injured by someone else's dog, state laws pertaining to dog bite liability and injury lawsuits over animal attacks may be of special interest to you.

In this article, we'll discuss the deadline for bringing a dog bite lawsuit in California, the state's "strict liability" dog bite statute as it pertains to an owner's financial responsibility for dog bite injuries, and defenses a dog owner might raise when faced with a personal injury claim over a dog bite incident.

Deadline for Filing a California Dog Bite Lawsuit

A statute of limitations is a law that places a deadline on your right to file a lawsuit in your state's civil court system.

A claim for dog bite injuries would be considered a personal injury lawsuit, and California's statute of limitations on personal injury cases (California Code of Civil Procedure section 340) gives you two years to get this kind of case started, by filing a personal injury complaint in court. If the case is filed after the two-year deadline has passed, the court will almost certainly dismiss it.

California's "Strict Liability" Dog Bite Statute

California's dog bite statute, which can be found at California Civil Code section 3342, says 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 was lawfully in a private place (including the dog owner's property) when the bite occurred.

The statute usually won't apply to dog bite injuries that result when 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 a child is playing on the sidewalk when a dog jumps on the child, accidentally scratching the child's eye and causing injury. 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 when it comes to 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. The statute itself speaks to this issue, holding the dog owner liable "regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness."

If you are bitten, you need only 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).

A Dog Owner's Defenses to Bite Liability in California

A California dog owner may raise the defense of "trespassing" against a dog bite claim. Remember, California's dog bite statute 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 under the statute.

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.

If you find yourself on either side of a dog bite claim as the animal's owner or as someone who suffered a bite injury it may be time to discuss your situation with a personal injury lawyer.

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