In California, the owner of a dog is strictly liable for dog bite injuries, unless the victim provoked the dog or was a trespasser. The topic of strict liability is covered in detail in another section of this web site. (See Legal rights of a dog bite victim, and the lawyer-oriented Civil liability for dog bites in California.) Noel and Knoller called themselves the “trustees” of the dogs that killed Whipple, indicating that they intend to defend themselves from a civil lawsuit on the grounds that they were not the “owner.”
They also were subject to other causes of action. One of them was that either or both defendants were negligent in the handling of the dogs. This web site contains much detailed discussion of negligence. (See Legal rights of a dog bite victim, and the lawyer-oriented Civil liability for dog bites in California.)
Yet another avenue of recovery was common law strict liability resulting from keeping a dog that has dangerous propensities. In other words, if Noel and Knoller should have known that the Presa Canarios, Bane and Hera, had the dangerous tendency to kill or violently attack a person, then one or both defendants could be held strictly accountable for all the consequences.
Theories of recovery against other defendants
In any dog bite case, the possible civil defendants include not only the owners and caretakers of the dog, but also the landlord and property manager where the dogs resided, the breeder, dog trainers and possibly others. The legal basis for all such claims is negligence. To be held liable, landlords and property managers of residential property have to possess actual knowledge that the dog(s) previously bit another person or exhibited a dangerous propensity of some kind.
Because Whipple died, the legal cause of action was for her wrongful death. In such a case, the person suing is not the victim, who of course is dead, but whomever is allowed to file a wrongful death suit. That person usually is determined by the rules applicable to people who die without a will: the same person(s) who can inherit your property if you die without a will are the ones who can sue for your wrongful death.
Sharon Smith and Edythe Pamela Whipple-Kelly filed wrongful death suits against Noel and Knoller, and against the owner and property manager of the building where the dogs lived. Both lawsuits were settled, and the settlements have been kept secret.
In a wrongful death action, the value of the case is based on the value of the person’s life to whomever is suing. Therefore it is not possible to give a rule of thumb about the potential damages in these cases, because they depend on the relationship between the victim and the person suing.