Liability Based on the Dog Bite Statute in California

California is a statutory strict liability state. It makes the dog owner responsible from the moment they own the dog. The owner is liable for any dog bite. The victim does not need to prove negligence or anything else.

The law has a few exceptions. The owner is not liable if the victim was trespassing, provoking the dog, working for the owner, or in some situations doing a paid job with the dog. Here is the text of the statute:

California Civil Code section 3342.

(a) The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness. A person is lawfully upon the private property of such owner within the meaning of this section when he is on such property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this state or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States, or when he is on such property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner.

(b) Nothing in this section shall authorize the bringing of an action pursuant to subdivision (a) against any governmental agency using a dog in military or police work if the bite or bites occurred while the dog was defending itself from an annoying, harassing, or provoking act, or assisting an employee of the agency in any of the following:

(1) In the apprehension or holding of a suspect where the employee has a reasonable suspicion of the suspect's involvement in criminal activity.

(2) In the investigation of a crime or possible crime.

(3) In the execution of a warrant.

(4) In the defense of a peace officer or another person.

(c) Subdivision (b) shall not apply in any case where the victim of the bite or bites was not a party to, nor a participant in, nor suspected to be a party to or a participant in, the act or acts that prompted the use of the dog in the military or police work.

(d) Subdivision (b) shall apply only where a governmental agency using a dog in military or police work has adopted a written policy on the necessary and appropriate use of a dog for the police or military work enumerated in subdivision (b).

Important Points About the Statute

Statutory liability based on dog ownership starts the moment someone becomes the owner. In Menches v. Inglewood Humane Society (1942) 51 Cal. App. 2d 415, 418, the victim bought the dog from the humane society. Just 10 minutes later, the dog bit the victim. The court ruled that the victim couldn’t sue the former owner. Ownership became official when the victim paid the fee and received the dog. The court wrote:
The fact that the ownership had been vested in plaintiffs only ten minutes does not minimize or alter the significance of the acts of the acceptance of the dog and the payment of the required fee. Their title to the dog became vested in plaintiffs just as conclusively as though they had housed him for more than three years and had asserted adverse title to him.

The provocation defense does not apply to a child under 5 years old. This is because provocation is like negligence, and a young child cannot be considered negligent. (See Special Rules Where the Victim Is a Child.)

The provocation defense does not apply to a child who was following their parents’ instructions. (See Special Rules Where the Victim Is a Child.)

“Provocation” means legal provocation. This is different from factual or philosophical provocation. It refers to the victim’s actions, like inflicting pain on the dog, which legally justifies the dog’s aggressive behavior. (See Defenses in California and Provocation: the Myth.)

If the victim is 5 years old or older, their monetary damages may be reduced by their degree of negligence. (See Liability Based on Negligence and Negligence Per Se.)

If the statute does not apply, the claim can be based on other causes of action. For example, if a person is knocked down instead of bitten, or if the defendant is the landlord of the dog owner. The claim could be based on negligence or strict liability established by local ordinance. (See the list of causes of action at California Dog Bite Law.)

If the victim is an employee of the dog owner and is bitten on the job, the remedy is found under the Labor Code, not the dog bite statute. However, the victim can sue the employer if the employer does not have workers’ compensation insurance. (See Employer Liability When Employee Bitten by Dog at Liability Based on Other Grounds in California.)

When pleading a dog bite case, there are important strategies that the plaintiff’s lawyer must use. These strategies help avoid a loss by summary judgment or at trial. (See Tips and Tricks for Plaintiffs’ Attorneys.)

The Reasons for the Statute

The statute aims to stop dogs from being a danger to the community. In Davis v. Glaschler (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1392, 1399, the court said this clearly:

The law puts the responsibility for dog bites on the dog owners. Since "the owner is virtually an insurer of the dog's conduct" (Massey v. Colaric (1986) 151 Ariz. 65, 725 P.2d 1099, 1100), owners must be careful to prevent their dogs from biting anyone.

The statute also helps by reducing conflicts after a dog attack. Because liability is automatic, the dog owner and victim can keep their personal relationship without fighting, blaming, or a long claims processes. This matters because 75% of the time the victim is a family member, neighbor, or friend of the dog owner.

Municipal Strict Liability Laws

Some municipalities in California and elsewhere have enacted their own laws of strict liability. Here is an example from the Beverly Hills Municipal Code:

5-2-111: Liability for Injury or Damages:

A. Any person owning, controlling, or having care or custody of any animal shall be liable for any injury caused by such animal, and for any damage caused to any public property, or to any private property.

B. Any person owning, controlling or having care or custody of any animal shall take such reasonable and necessary precautions as required to protect all persons from physical harm from such animal, and to protect the private property of any other person. (1962 Code §§ 5-1.108, 5-1.207; amd. Ord. 09-O-2560, eff. 2-6-2009)

There are advantages to using a law like the Beverly Hills code. It doesn’t just apply to the dog owner. It covers any injury, not just dog bites. It includes property damage and personal injuries.