A dog bite vigilante who claimed he was protecting a small boy faces felony animal cruelty charges after he allegedly stabbed a neighborhood pit bull.
According to police and witnesses, 30-year-old Rudy Jesus Barajas believed that Devo, a large pit bull, had earlier attacked a neighbor’s son. So, Mr. Barajas evidently grabbed Devo, dragged the animal inside his kitchen, and used a knife to cut the animal. Devo then escaped and collapsed on his way back to his owner’s premises; the dog died as its owner transported it to a local veterinarian. The responding Animal Services officer, Max Morales, determined that Mr. Barajas’ reaction was excessive and may have been motivated by an animus towards Devo’s owner.
At the same time, Officer Morales said the incident served as a warning for all dog owners to “do everything they can to keep their pet inside their own property’s boundaries” with things like “strong fences or tall walls or secure gates.”
Dog Bite Statistics
In 2015, California homeowners insurance companies paid almost $76 million to settle over 1,600 animal attack claims, and both these figures lead the nation in their respective categories. The high number of claims probably speaks to the broad, victim-friendly nature of the laws in the Golden State, and these laws are outlined below. The high dollar amount speaks to the extremely serious nature of the injuries in many of these cases.
Typically, dog bite victims are small children, which is probably one reason that the man in the above story reacted so strongly to the perceived threat. Since the animal often substantially outweighs the victim, the knockdown alone often causes broken bones and even head, neck or spine injuries. Second, many dogs pierce the skin with their teeth and also tear at flesh, causing severe trauma injuries. Finally, these severe physical wounds often crease serious psychological wounds as well, and many young victims suffer from nightmares, flashbacks, and other Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms for a very long time after the attack.
Since California is a tort state, injury victims are entitled to compensation for both economic damages, such as medical bills, and noneconomic damages, such as emotional distress. Dog bite victims are often entitled to additional punitive damages as well, particularly if the attacking animal had already injured someone before.
Dog Bite Law
In most states, dog owners are only liable for bite damages if the animal had vicious propensities, which essentially mean it had either attacked someone before or exhibited dangerous behavior, like growling, snapping, or loud barking. But California is a strict liability state, so victim/plaintiffs do not need to prove negligence or any other fault. Instead, victims must only show that:
- The defendant owned the attacking animal,
- The attack occurred in a public place or while the victim was lawfully on private property,
- The victim was injured, and
- The dog proximately caused the victim’s damages, i.e. the animal attack must have been a substantial factor in bringing about the harm.
California law generally defines an “owner” as anyone with a superior right of possession, so the term really means owner or custodian.Furthermore, as in a car crash, any physical injury is enough to satisfy the third prong, so oddly enough, the dog doesn’t actually have to bite the victim in a dog bite case.
Insurance Company Defenses
Contributory negligence is the go-to insurance company defense in nearly all tort cases, and dog bites are no exception. Depending on the nature of the attack, defense lawyers usually advance one of two legal theories.
Whenever possible, insurance companies argue that the victim provoked the animal. Since some of the larger breeds are rather aggressive by nature, they often react violently and instinctively in certain situations. Once again, California’s laws tilt in favor of victims. As a matter of law, the defense is inapplicable if the victim is under 5, and if the children are older, there is a strong presumption that the so-called “tender years” doctrine applies and they are simply unable to appreciate the consequences of their actions. Furthermore, provocation in this context must be a physical act, such as inflicting pain, which legally justifies a violent response. Finally, the provocation defense is inapplicable if the child was following a parent’s prompting.
If the victim is an adult, and especially if the victim is a dog caregiver or veterinary worker, insurance companies often invoke the assumption of the risk doctrine. For the defense to apply, the victim must voluntarily assume a known risk, and neither prong applies in many dog bite cases. Assenting to a risk is not the same thing as assuming it, so when bosses tell workers that they must be around certain animals, these victims probably did not “assume” the risk. Secondly, the victim must know that the dog was dangerous, and the insurance company has the burden of proof to establish knowledge.
Because dog bites in the Golden State nearly always cause serious injuries, these cases are relatively easy to prove in court. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Los Angeles, contact Citywide Law Group. Our award-winning lawyers are dedicated to serving you.