California dog owners lead the nation in numbers. They own the most dogs, with at least one dog in residence in nearly 40% of their households. They also spend the most on tax-paid euthanasia, and pay out more through insurance dog bite settlements than any other U.S. state. Clearly, dog ownership is quite popular here. But, as State Farm has reported, so are dog bites. And it's important to note that California is a strict liability state with respect to dog attacks.
No "free first bite" in California for Dog Owners
Under California law, specifically Civil Code § 3342, dog owners are liable when their animals bite someone. This is the case whether or not the dog has a history of aggressive behavior or has ever bitten anyone in the past. The legal term for this is strict liability. This means that when you have suffered a dog bite, your lawyer need not prove negligence to recover for your injuries. The law assumes that the owner is responsible by default. Bear in mind that you cannot recover under this statute if you were trespassing on the dog owner's property.
What About Dog "Handlers"?
Often, dog owners allow others to care for their pets, such as sitters, walkers or even relatives. What if you are bitten while the animal is in the care of someone other than the owner? In these cases, your attorney may be able to show that the person responsible for the dog at the time had knowledge of the animal's aggressive behavior or prior history of biting. Perhaps it was a breed known to be dangerous. This is one way to prove negligence by a non-owner, legally referred to as scienter. This falls under common law.
If the dog doesn't have a "violent history", there are other factors that may establish negligence on the part of the non-owner:
- The dog was mishandled.
- The animal was roaming freely.
- The dog was not leashed.
- The pet was improperly chained or secured.
Dog Bite Defenses
Common defenses against liability in a dog bite claim include comparative negligence. This means that you contributed to the attack and subsequent injury. Provocation and trespassing are typical arguments for this position. An assumption of risk usually applies to professionals who deal with dogs as part of their job, such as dog groomers, veterinarians and dog handlers. Children are treated differently under the law. Minors younger than five years of age are viewed as incapable of negligence in their behavior with a dog.
The law regarding dog bites can be complex depending upon the parties involved and the contributing circumstances. A knowledgeable California dog bite attorney can help you determine how best to proceed to recover for your dog bite injuries or that of your child.
Sources: http://www.seecalifornia.com/dogs/california-dogs.html, http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=CIV§ionNum=3342