How Is Liability Determined in California Dog Bite Cases?
For the most part, animal owners are strictly liable for bite incidentsBy Benjy Schirm, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 21, 2024 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney John Michael Montevideo
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- Strict Liability for Dog Owners in California
- California’s Dangerous Propensity Rule
- What Happens to Animals Following a Bite Incident
- Insurance Coverage and Costs Following a Bite Incident
- Preserve Evidence of the Incident
- Find Experienced Legal Help
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?
Strict Liability for Dog Owners in California
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 owner’s 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.”
California’s Dangerous Propensity Rule
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 dangerous dog.
What Happens to Animals Following a Bite Incident
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 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.”
Insurance Coverage and Costs Following a Bite Incident
Strict liability is meant to resolve cases quickly when there is clear fault of an owner. Of course, 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.”
Preserve Evidence of the Incident
No matter which side of a dog bite you’re on – the animal’s owner or the dog bite victim – 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 company information with the other party.
Find Experienced Legal Help
Whatever the severity of the dog bite injury, always contact an experienced and reputable dog bite lawyer. Many personal injury lawyers provide free consultations to evaluate your dog bite claim and let you know the proper steps moving forward.
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