California Dog-Bite Injury Laws and Owner Liability Rules

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

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Whether you're a dog owner in California, or you've been injured by someone else's dog, it's important to understand the Golden State's laws pertaining to dog-bite liability and injury lawsuits over animal attacks.

In this article, we'll discuss what you need to know about lawsuits over injuries caused by dogs—including how the state's "strict liability" dog-bite statute works, how much time a victim has to file their case, and defenses a dog owner might raise when faced with a personal injury claim over a dog-bite incident.

We'll also talk about other potential consequences—for the animal and for its owner—when a dog bites, attacks, or engages in other dangerous behavior.

What Is California's "Strict Liability" Dog-Bite Law?

California is a "strict liability" state when it comes to dog bites. This means that owners can't escape liability for a dog bite by claiming they had no idea their 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 state's dog-bite statute, California Civil Code Section 3342, makes this explicit—it says that an owner is liable for a bite "regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness." 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.

Examples of people who would be "lawfully in a private place" include invited guests and people a homeowner has hired to do yardwork or clean the house.

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. In a negligence lawsuit, the argument would be that the dog owner failed to take reasonable steps to secure the dog. So the victim in a case like this could still be entitled to damages, they'd just have to prove more to make their case.

What's the 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, like other personal injury claims in California, is covered by the two-year statute of limitations listed in California Code of Civil Procedure section 335.1. That means you must file a personal injury complaint within two years of the bite, or the court will almost certainly dismiss your case.

What Are a Dog Owner or Handler'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 under the statute. An injured person who was trespassing on private property when the bite occurred wouldn't be considered "lawfully in a private place," so they won't be successful in an injury claim brought under the California dog-bite statute.

An owner can also raise the defense that the injured person provoked the dog. The argument that the defendant was wholly or partially responsible for their own injuries is a common defense in all kinds of negligence cases. If the plaintiff's own careless or intentional conduct provoked a dog into biting or attacking, they might lose their lawsuit or receive less compensation for their injuries.

Remember that an owner can argue that their dog was provoked even if the plaintiff sues under California's strict liability dog-bite law. This isn't necessarily obvious from the text of California's strict liability statute, which could be interpreted to mean that an owner is liable for any bite (unless the victim is a trespasser). But California's courts have ruled that it would be unfair to interpret the law like that, since it would hold a dog and its owner responsible even in situations where the dog was just reacting to being abused, teased, or provoked.

Similarly, even under California's strict liability rules, an owner can sometimes raise the defense that the person who was bitten assumed the risk that they might be injured. The so-called "veterinarian's rule" allows owners to argue that vets, kennel workers, and others who choose to work with animals accept at least some risk of being hurt by those animals. Whether this defense is allowed, or is likely to be successful, will depend on the facts of each case.

Finally, California law explicitly bars lawsuits against government agencies and the military in situations where the dog:

  • was provoked, or
  • was carrying out its law enforcement or military duties.

Keep in mind that these defenses only apply if the agency responsible for the dog has a written policy for handling its working dogs. Also, just because a dog is on the job doesn't mean there can never be liability for a bite. The bite has to be somehow related to the dog's work. So, for example, a fleeing suspect couldn't sue the police department over being bitten by a police dog. But if the police dog veers off and bites an innocent bystander, that person might have a case.

What Happens to Dogs That Bite People in California?

If a dog bites a person, California law requires the owner to take "reasonable steps" to make sure the dog doesn't continue to pose a biting risk (for example, giving the dog additional training or making sure it's kept in a secure enclosure).

If a dog has bitten a person in two (or more) separate incidents, the consequences for the dog could be more severe. In that situation, government attorneys or private citizens could bring an action against the owner. There would then be a court hearing to decide if the owner has done enough to make sure the dog no longer poses a danger to people. The court has a lot of leeway to decide how to deal with the situation—and that could include removing the dog from the area or ordering that it be "destroyed" (that is, euthanized).

Keep in mind, though, that you can't bring this kind of action against a dog owner just because the dog has bitten trespassers.

A private citizen or government attorney can sometimes bring an action against a dog owner after a single biting incident. That's only allowed if:

  • the bite results in "substantial injury," and
  • the dog has been trained to fight other dogs, or trained to attack people.

The court has the same leeway in these kinds of cases to have the dog euthanized or removed from the area.

What Happens to Vicious and Dangerous Dogs in California?

In addition to its rules for dogs that have bitten people, California has a separate process, laid out in its Food and Agricultural Code, for investigating and dealing with dogs that might be vicious or dangerous.

California law defines dangerous and vicious dogs based on their behavior, not their breed. In fact, state law makes it illegal for a local government to single out particular breeds when creating legislation for vicious and dangerous dogs.

California's Rules for Potentially Dangerous Dogs

Under California law, a dog is "potentially vicious" if it falls into either of two categories. The first category includes dogs that, in the previous three years, have had two or more incidents in which they were off their owners' property and, without being provoked, either:

  • acted in a way that required a person to defend themselves from being injured, or
  • killed or injured a domestic animal.

The second category includes dogs that, without being provoked, bite people and cause a less severe injury (we'll talk more about severe injuries when we discuss vicious dogs).

If a dog is classified as potentially dangerous, then the owner must:

  • make sure the dog is vaccinated and licensed, and that the license includes the "dangerous" designation
  • either keep the dog indoors, or keep it in an escape-proof enclosure that children can't trespass into
  • only allow the dog off the property if it's under the control of a responsible adult and restrained by a strong, short leash; and
  • notify the local authorities if the dog dies, is sold, or is permanently moved from the area.

The owner of a potentially dangerous dog can be fined up to $500 for failing to comply with these requirements.

Dogs that go three years without any new incidents are automatically removed from the "potentially dangerous" list. Owners can get their dog removed sooner by showing that they've taken steps (like additional training) to address the dog's dangerous or aggressive behavior.

California's Rules for Vicious Dogs

If a dog has already been classified as "potentially dangerous," it can be given the more serious designation of "vicious" if:

  • it continues the behavior that got it classified as "potentially dangerous," or
  • the owner doesn't comply with the legal requirements for potentially dangerous dogs.

A dog can also be classified as vicious even if it hasn't already been classified as potentially dangerous. That can happen if the dog has, without being provoked, killed or severely injured a person. A "severe" injury is one that results in muscle tears, disfigurement, or wounds that require stitches or corrective surgery.

If a dog is found to be vicious, there are serious consequences for the dog and its owner. The dog could be "destroyed" (that is, euthanized). It could also remain with its owner, but under the condition that the owner comply with rules designed to protect the public from the dog. It's also possible that the owner could be barred from owning or having control over any dog for up to three years.

The owner of a vicious dog can be fined up to up to $1,000 for failing to comply with these requirements.

Not Every Bite or Attack Is Evidence That a Dog Is Vicious or Dangerous

California law recognizes that there are certain situations where a dog's aggressive behavior is acceptable, or at least excusable. A dog can't be declared vicious or dangerous if it injures someone who was:

  • trespassing or committing another tort on the premises of its owner or keeper
  • teasing, tormenting, abusing, or assaulting the dog; or
  • committing or attempting to commit a crime.

Dogs are also permitted to protect or defend people from unjustified attacks and assaults without being declared vicious or dangerous.

If a dog injures another animal, that can't be used to declare the dog vicious or dangerous if:

  • the other animal was teasing, tormenting, abusing, or assaulting the dog, or
  • the dog was on its owner's property or under its owner's control, and injured the other animal as part of its work as a hunting, herding, or predator control dog.

What's the Process for Deciding That a Dog is Dangerous or Vicious?

Before a dog can be declared potentially dangerous or vicious, the government has to hold a hearing where it considers the evidence and gives the owner a chance to argue on behalf of their pet. If the owner isn't happy with the decision at the hearing, they can appeal, but the outcome of that appeal is final.

A hearing can be ordered if an animal control or law enforcement officer has probable cause (that is, a good reason) to believe that the dog is dangerous or vicious. If there's probable cause to believe that a dog poses an immediate threat to public safety, it can be impounded even without a hearing. But there would still need to be a hearing before the government could permanently take the dog from its owner or impose other consequences.

When Can Dog Owners Face Criminal Charges in California?

There are several situations in which California dog owners can face criminal charges.

An owner can be convicted of a misdemeanor and fined $100 if their dog bites someone and they don't provide the victim (or the victim's parent or guardian) with their contact information, along with their dog's license and vaccination information.

Owners also risk criminal liability if they fail to control a dog that they know could be "mischievous" (that is, dangerous). If an owner knows their dog might be dangerous, they're legally obligated to make sure the dog doesn't roam around off leash, and to take other reasonable precautions to protect people. Owners who fail to do this could be charged with:

  • either a misdemeanor or a felony of the dog injures someone, or
  • a felony if the dog kills someone.

The owner of a dog that's been trained to fight, attack, or kill can also face serious criminal charges if they know the dog is dangerous and they don't take ordinary care to protect others. In that situation, the owner could be charged with a felony if the dog either:

  • bites people on two separate occasions, or
  • has one biting incident that results in serious injury.

An owner who's found guilty under this statute could face up to four years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

What Should You Do Next in Your Dog-Bite Case?

If you find yourself on either side of a dog-bite claim, or have other questions about how California law applies to dogs and their owners, it may be time to discuss your situation with a personal injury lawyer.

If you've been injured by a dog, an attorney can walk you through how a personal injury lawsuit works in California. An experienced attorney will also be able to help you decide if suing makes sense given the strength of your case and the amount of your damages. As we've seen, the laws covering dogs and their owners can be complicated. So, whatever the specifics of your situation, if you decide to consult an attorney make sure they have the right experience to advise you on what to do next.

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