When we look at the cost of our dogs, the first things that come to mind are the food, grooming, trips to the vet, and, of course, treats. My dog, Bruin, usually gets more snacks from the store than I do and will only eat the most expensive food around. In the year that I’ve had him, I am almost ashamed to think about the money that I’ve spent ensuring that he’s a happy dog. However, the true cost of a dog really goes unmeasured unless the dog misbehaves. In many states, dog owners get “one free bite” before facing liability. That means that dog owners must be aware of their dog’s propensities before facing liability for a dog bite. In California, there are no free bites.
Under Civil Code §3342, dog owners are strictly 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. Strict liability in this case means that the owner of the dog is liable based on ownership or control, and the injured party does not need to show that the owner acted negligently. Essentially, unless the dog is protecting private property, the owner is liable for any injuries suffered as a result of the dog bite.
Dog owners may also be liable for injuries caused by their dog, whether as a result of a bite or some other action. If the dog has dangerous propensities, the owner may be strictly liable for injuries resulting from the dog knocking someone over. The owner’s or keeper’s knowledge of a dog’s vicious or dangerous propensities may be inferred by (1) the general reputation of the dog, (2) the size and breed of the dog, or (3) the fact that the dog is kept chained or muzzled. (Smith v. Royer (1919) 181 Cal. 165, 170).
In addition to strict liability, dog owners may be liable for injuries caused by a dog, other than dog bites, based upon a negligent act. For example, an injured person may be able to show negligence on the owner’s part if the owner allowed the dogs to run unrestrained in violation of the local leash law. Redding Municipal Code sections 7.04.050 and 7.04.080 require that dogs be prevented from “running at large” and that owners have an enclosure to prevent them from doing so. If a dog injures someone while out of the enclosure, the owner would be negligent per se, and would be required to show that the ordinance was not obeyed for good reason in order to avoid liability.
Even without a showing of violation of an ordinance or law, dog owners may face liability on a simple theory of negligence. In California, courts have ruled that owners may be negligent when there is ineffective control of an animal in a situation where it would reasonably be expected that injury could occur, that an injury does occur, and that the amount of control required is that which would be exercised by a reasonable person based upon the total situation at the time, including the past behavior of the animal and the injuries that could have been reasonably foreseen. In layman’s terms, if your dog injures someone due to the fact that you did not have effective control over your dog when you should have, you may be liable under a theory of negligence.
In sum, there really are no free bites in California. If your dog injures someone, you can be held liable. Some homeowner insurance policies do cover liability due to your dog, but not all. Furthermore, certain breeds are often excluded from coverage. You should always read your policy and notify your insurance carrier if you do own a dog to ensure that you have coverage.
Aaron Moore is an attorney with Maire & Burgess with a practice emphasis on civil litigation. He is a Shasta High graduate, and studied at UCLA, Boston University School of Law, and University of Central London prior to returning to the North State. He may be reached at Maire & Burgess, 2851 Park Marina Drive, Suite 300, Redding, CA 96001 (530) 246-6050, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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