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Under California Civil Code 3342, dog owners are rendered liable for injuries that take place in a public or private space, upon which the victim has a lawful right to be.

California dog bite legislation differs from that of other states because it holds dog owners strictly accountable for liable dog bite injuries incurred. Liability entails the dog owner’s responsibility to compensate dog bite victims, even if the dog owner’s dog did not demonstrate any previous signs of aggression.

The exact language of the California Civil 3342 statute concerning dog owner liability for dog bites is as follows:

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).”

When it comes to a dog owner’s liability for dog bite injuries, certain exceptions do exist under California law including the following:

• The dog is registered as a law enforcement animal
• The victim which incurred the bite was illegally trespassing on private property at the time of the dog attack
• The victim is considered partially at fault for his or her injuries
• The victim, in the case of his or her occupation, assumed the risk of an animal attack under California statute

In this article section, we will cover the following legal topics concerning dog bites in California:

1. What exactly does California’s dog bite statute entail?

California’s dog bite law is also legally and interchangeably known as California Civil Code 3342. This legal statute renders a dog owner strictly accountable or liable for their dog’s bites if:

  • The dog bite or attack takes place in public
  • The dog bite takes place in an area where the victim had every lawful right to be

In order to prove a case consistent with California dog bite legislation, victims must be able to demonstrate evidence of the following:

  • The defendant owned the dog,
  • The dog bit the victim in a public place or while the victim was lawfully on private property,
  • The dog bite hurt the victim, and
  • The dog bite was a substantial factor in the injuries.

1.1. What is the legal definition of strict liability?

Strict liability refers to the legal principle that renders individuals liable for their means of conduct, even if their conduct is lacking negligence.

California law in a large majority of cases places the burden of proof upon the victims to indicate how the defendant was acting negligent at the time of the victim’s injury. Strict liability laws within California’s legal code do not require that the victim prove or provide evidence of the defendant’s negligence.

Strict liability laws affect the defendant even if the defendant adheres to proper precautions. Under strict liability stipulations, the defendant can be held liable for the injury or accident simply because of its occurrence.

Consider the following fictitious scenario: Ellen’s dog Buddy is conventionally docile and tame; she crates him at dinner time prior to having guests over. In spite of crating her dog, he manages to escape and subsequently attacks and bites one of the invited guests.

1.2 What is the definition of being in a public space or legally situated on private property?

In order to leverage California dog bite legislation, injured victims must situated legally in a public forum or lawfully located on private property at the time of the attack.

A public space is defined as a location that is legally and easily accessible to the general public. Examples of public spaces include the following locations:

  • Sidewalks
  • Parks
  • Store operating during business hours

To be eligible to file a claim under California dog bite legislation, victims must be legally on private property at the time of the attack. The circumstances in which individuals have a legal right to be on private property, including the private property of the owner, include the following scenarios:

  • The individual is performing a legal duty or obligation on the property as mandated by federal or state law
  • The individually has been consciously invited to the private property by the property owner

Instance of individuals who perform a legal duty or obligation under federal or state law include the following workers:

  • Meter readers
  • Postal workers
  • Package delivery staff and personnel

Invitations to the private property of a homeowner can either be:

  • Implicitly suggested or implied
  • Openly and candidly expressed

It is possible for invitations to limited by the caveat of staying limited to one area of the house. If the invited individual ignores this limitation, he or she may become a trespasser on private property.

1.3 Does the severity of my dog bite injury impact my ability to file a claim?

California dog bite legislation renders dog owners strictly liable and accountable for all dog bite injuries, notwithstanding of however minor or negligible these injuries may be. It is also not always necessary for the victim’s skin to be punctured as a result of a dog attack in order to file a claim.

Consider the following fictitious scenario: A repairman is climbing a tall ladder in effort to fix his client homeowner’s leaking roof. In the midst of his job, the homeowner’s dog bites the repairman’s ankle. The dog bite does not puncture the worker’s ankle but the ferocity of the attack is enough for him to lose his balance and fall of the ladder.

1.4 Is Civil Code 3342 the only legal avenue by which a dog bite victim can recover compensatory damages for a dog bite attack in California?

This is not the case. California’s Civil Code 3342 dog bite statute is only one of a few avenues by which dog bite victims are able to recover compensatory damages. Other methods of recovering compensation in dog bite cases prompt the victim to demonstrate the following:

  • The owner was previously aware of the dog’s history of aggression
  • The owner was negligent in his actions by failing to prevent the harm to the victim in the first place

California’s Civil Code 3342 dog bite statute, however, does serves as one of the simpler and easier cases for personal injury attorneys to prove. The statue does not require that the victim prove that the dog owner did anything wrong or demonstrated negligence. The statute only calls for the dog bite victim to show that he or she was bitten and subsequently protected by the terms of Civil Code 3342.

2. What differentiates Civil Code 3342 from the terms of the “one bite rule”

California dog bite legislation enforces strict liability upon the dog owner, regardless of the owner’s knowledge of the dog’s history or aggression or predisposition to biting. This stipulation is unique from the one bite legislation of other states.

One bite laws in other states enforce strict liability upon the dog owner only once the owner becomes wary of their dog’s aggression and predisposition to biting people. This normally would require for personal injury attorneys to prove that the dog already exhibits a history of biting people. The one bite rule essentially allows dog owners with “one free bite,” which Civil Code 3342 does not enable.

3. What scenarios pose exclusions to imposing strict liability on a dog owner?

California’s Civil Code 3342 does permit for exclusions to the strict liability regulation. Dog owners or defendants that can indicate if one of the following exceptions apply to their case may be able to avoid being held strictly liable under the provisions of California’s dog bite legislation.

The following situations illustrate cases in which exclusions may apply to the enforcement of strict liability:

  • The attacking dog was a law enforcement animal
  • The victim was at partial fault for the attack
  • The victim was considered a trespasser and not on private party lawfully at the time of the attack
  • The victim assumed the risk of getting bitten as in the occupational case with veterinarians, dog groomers…etc.

3.1 The case of the trespassing dog bite victim

California’s Civil Code 3342 is only applicable in cases in which individuals were bitten in a public space or bitten while lawfully situated on private property. If these individuals are trespassing or unlawfully located on private premises while bitten, then the dog owner will not be rendered strictly liable.

Trespassers are eligible to recover compensation in some cases if they can prove that:

  • The owner knew of the dog’s history of aggression
  • The owner acted negligently

3.2 Animals that are classified as government or law enforcement canines

Under Civil Code 3342, the government is not rendered or held strictly liable for dog bites originating from canines that are being used for military, police, or governmental agency work. The government cannot be held liable for the bites of law enforcement animals in cases which:

  • The law enforcement canine was assisting in the apprehension of a criminal suspect reasonable suspected of criminal conduct of activity
  • The bite transpired during the course of warrant execution or criminal investigation
  • The law enforcement canine was acting in defense of a police officer or other patty
  • The dog was purposefully harassed, annoyed, or provoked and reacted in a bite as a means of self-defense

3.3 The “veterinarian’s rule” which entails an inherent assumption of risk

Assumption of risk, sometimes commonly referred to as the “veterinarian’s rule, is a defense that regularly leveraged in response to strict liability under California’s Civil Code 3342.

Some individuals assume in occupational hazard of their profession, which entails the conceivable and known risk of being bitten by a canine. In taking these jobs, professionals implicitly assume the risk of potentially being bitten.

California legislation does not hold dog owners strictly liable in cases which individual assume the risk of being bitten as a possible occupational hazard of their workplace. In essence, these professional have an idea of what they are getting into when it comes to assuming the risk of dog bites.

Typically, professionals who have assumed the risk of being bitten by a dog and are unable to use California’s dog bite legislation to their defense include:

  • Kennel workers
  • Veterinarians and veterinary techs

3.4 Comparative Fault

A common defense implemented in response to strict liability imposed under Civil Code 3342 is that of comparative fault, which implicate dog bite victims are partially to blame for their injuries.

California’s comparative fault legislation requires juries to ascribe fault to both the dog bite victim and the dog. If any responsibility is ascribed to the victim for the attack, then this minimizes the compensatory damages the victim is able to recover as a result of his or her injuries.

Victims can be assigned partial fault for their dog bite injuries if they engage in any of the following actions towards the dog that bites them:

  • Harassment
  • Undue provocation
  • Annoyance
  • Purposeful striking or injury

Consider the following fictitious scenario: John absolutely despises dogs. He repeatedly attacks and throw bricks at his neighbor’s dog until the dog reacts and bites him. John suffers $8,000 worth of damages, but a jury ascribes him 50% fault rendering him eligible only for $4,000 in compensatory damages.

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