My Dog Bit Someone. Am I at Fault?

California’s liability rules and what you can do about it

Having a new puppy enter your life can be one of the most joyful experiences. But they can be hard to contain, especially because they just want to play with you, and protect you. When they do go too far—if they bite and someone gets hurt—what happens next?

In California, if a dog bites someone, it is a strict liability issue. “If there is a bite, the owners are liable,” says attorney John Montevideo. “There are some exceptions to the rule, but, for the most part, it’s the owners fault for it simply having happened.

“Because the law attaches strict liability to these claims, it is often a cleaner area of the law,” he continues. “The facts of most dog-bite cases are fairly straightforward, and in that sense, we get to focus on the damages piece. Some areas of the law get tied up in legalese and jargon—fights over minutiae that don’t actually help anyone solve an issue.”

There is a dangerous propensity rule in California, meaning dogs are evaluated on whether they have a history of biting anyone or not. If they do, they may be labeled as having a dangerous propensity. There are certain requirements and restrictions that come with this labeling, and there are potential criminal and punitive damages attached to a dog that has been labeled as dangerous.

The most important consideration a court takes in a dog-bite case is what is needed to protect the public from harm. That being said, liability can be increased if an owner is not acting responsibly with a potentially dangerous animal. Further, if an owner can’t control of their animal, the animal may be put down.

“In a perfect world, we could send any dangerous animal out to pasture, and they could run free in Oklahoma. But the reality is, if there’s a history of a dangerous propensity … it makes it hard to keep an animal alive and pass the buck off to another shelter or facility or owner,” says Montevideo. “If an owner can’t control an animal, and the pounds or animal control can’t keep society safe from this animal, they will likely be put down due to public policy.”

Strict liability is meant to resolve cases quickly when there is clear fault of an owner. Of course, though, that isn’t always the case. “More than 90 percent of the time, people won’t give the information for their insurer,” says Montevideo. “People see their animals as their kids or family members, so their initial reaction is protection and defense. If there is a questionable issue, it makes sense to be protective. But when it’s clear there has been an injury, people should do the right thing.”

Montevideo notes that after the initial protectionism, some people make the cases difficult, worrying about their insurance costs. “In reality, your insurance won’t go up when you file a claim, and it won’t cost you anything,” he says. “That’s why you have insurance to protect you in these instances: All associated costs, and any lawyer fees, will be covered.”

No matter which side of a dog bit you’re on, it’s crucial that you document everything that you can—pictures, video, personal accounts, witness accounts—to help resolve the issue. It’s also important that you share your insurance with the other party.

Whatever the severity of the injury, if a dog has bitten you, always contact an experienced and reputable attorney. They can evaluate your case, and let you know the proper steps moving forward. 

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