Who is Liable When a Dog Bites?

An improperly trained dog is a dangerous animal. While everyone wants to believe that his or her pet dog would never hurt anybody, the truth is that dogs do bite, injure, and even kill people and other animals all the time. About 4.5 million people each year are bitten by a dog in the United States. Out of those millions of people, one in five are injured seriously enough to require medical attention – that is over 1000 people each day.

Dog bites are a serious issue in the United States, but many people choose not to pursue collecting money damages from the owner of the offending dog because they believe that they are barred from doing so under the traditional so-called ‘One Bite’ rule. This is not the rule of law in many places, however, and compensation may be available under California law. If you have been bitten by a dog, you may have a personal injury claim against the owner. Call our Los Angeles office today to discuss your case.

What is the One Bite Rule?

Traditionally, the One Bite rule acts as both a defense and a liability in dog bite cases. The dog’s owner is shielded from liability in the case of the first injury caused by the dog.

However, after the first injury, the dog’s owner is now considered as knowing that the dog is dangerous, and is held strictly liable for any further injuries caused by the dangerous dog. Because of this knowledge that the owner has that his or her dog has caused injuries in the past, the owner cannot shield him or herself with the defense that he or she did not know that the dog was dangerous. Many states today still use a form of the One Bite Rule when determining liability in dog bite cases.

What is Strict Liability?

Some states have eliminated the One Bite Rule altogether and apply strict liability to dog bite cases instead. Strict liability is a legal term of art and can be thought of as absolute liability. It does not matter in strict liability whether or not a person was negligent or at fault; he or she will still be held legally responsible for any damages that another person has suffered. Therefore, it does not matter whether or not a dog owner knew that his or her dog was dangerous or that the dog owner was negligent in letting his or her dog bite another person.

Under California’s strict liability laws for dog bites, the victim of a dog bite only has to show that:

  • The dog was owned by the defendant
  • The bite took place on public property or while the victim was lawfully on private property
  • The victim was actually bitten by the dog
  • The victim was injured by the dog

Dog bite statutes that impose strict liability vary from state to state and usually carve out certain exceptions. California’s statute, while explicitly making a dog owner strictly liable in cases of dog injuries, still carves out certain exceptions. These exceptions are very limited in their scope, however. Trespass is the primary defense under the California dog bite statute.

The owner of the dog that bit a victim may not be liable if the victim was a trespasser on the property where the attack occurred.

Alternative Theories of Recovery

Even if the victim of a dog bite was a trespasser or the owner has another defense that may not make him or her strictly liable for the dog bite, other legal theories exist that may allow recovery of economic compensation.

For example, a person who has suffered a dog bite may seek to recover under the legal theory of ‘scienter’ or knowledge of a domestic animal’s dangerousness. If the owner of a dog knows that the dog is dangerous and has bitten people in the past and still chooses to keep the dog, the owner will be held liable for the dog’s dangerous propensities, regardless of intent of the owner or negligence on the owner’s part.

Another common theory that allows recovery not only in cases of dog bites but other dog-related injuries such as scratches and broken bones is negligence. A dog owner is negligent in regards to his or her dog when the owner fails to prevent the dog from causing harm to other people. The circumstances in which a dog owner might be considered negligent are numerous and varied. These include but are not limited to:

  • A dog owner allowing his or her dog to run freely outside without a lead
  • A dog owner improperly securing a dog on a lead and the dog breaks free
  • A dog owner fails to control a dog who leaps onto another person and causes injury
  • A dog owner allows a large dog to play with small children who could be easily injured by such a large animal

Failing to meet any other legal theory for recovery, a victim of a dog bite can always seek to show that the owner of a dog violated a California law or statute designed to prevent dog bites. Such a law might require dogs to be on leashes or require that dogs be kept out of certain areas.

Consult a Dog Bite Attorney Today

Only a qualified personal injury attorney will be able to tell you which theory of recovery is best for your situation, and only after a careful examination of the facts of your case. If you or someone you know was bitten by a dog, do not wait to consult with an attorney experienced in handling dog bite cases.

The attorneys at Citywide Law Group in Los Angeles are willing and able to provide you with the resources and direction you need to help you recover for any losses or injuries that you may have sustained from a dog bite.