Most Californians understand that if they are bit by a dog, some laws will apply. But what exactly does the law say?
California’s dog bite law is most clearly understood through California Jury Instruction Number 463. That jury instruction breaks down the four essential elements of dog bite law (called “prima facie” elements in legalese) into plain English.
California dog bite law is a breed of “strict liability.” Strict liability means that legal responsibility for harm does not require any showing of negligence or wrongdoing. Dog owners can be held responsible for the harm from a dog bite, no matter how carefully they guard or restrain their dogs. It does not matter if the dog was known to be dangerous. Nor does it matter if the dog was leashed.
The first element of California dog bite law is to establish that the defendant actually owned the dog that bit the plaintiff. People who are bitten by a stray dog or a dog with an unknown owner will not be able to recover under the law. If you are bitten by a dog, immediately ascertain who owns the dog. You should also immediately call animal control or the police to help you, if necessary.
Second, a plaintiff must establish that they were bitten while on public property or while lawfully on private property. Illustrated, if a dog bite occurs in the Aptos Polo Grounds Dog Park, on Its Beach in Santa Cruz, or on Alvarado Street in downtown Monterey, the plaintiff has established the second element of their case.
But what does “lawfully on private property” mean? Friends or guests who are invited into the dog owner’s home are “lawfully” on private property. There is no legal immunity for dog bites that occur within the dog owner’s home. (See California Civil Code Section 3342 (a).) UPS drivers, pizza delivery drivers, general contractors, and any others who come onto property to perform a service are also included under this definition. Burglars, trespassers, and others not “lawfully” on private property will not satisfy this statute.
The third element requires that the plaintiff was harmed by the dog bite. This does not require the dog bite to break the skin, draw blood, or cause a wound. (See the case of Johnson v. McMahan (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 173 [Swamp cooler repairman bitten on leg through trousers by a German Shepherd named “Timber”.]). Nor is there exclusion for little dogs that could conceivably cause no permanent or lasting injury. A nip from a Chihuahua will establish liability.
Lastly, the bite must be a “substantial factor” in causing the plaintiff’s harm. To be “substantial” the bite must merely be “more than remote or trivial” in causing harm. This requirement is usually easily established in the context of a dog bite. However, it can get complicated.
As an illustration, take the imaginary case of Sally. Sally has chronic arthritis in both wrists resulting in constant pain and a decreased range of wrist motion. One day, Sally is bitten on the wrist by Willi the German Shepherd at Its Beach in Santa Cruz. The long-term effects of the bite cause even more pain in Sally’s wrists and further decrease her already limited range of wrist motion.
It does not matter that Sally had a preexisting harm or condition with her wrists before the bite. Sally merely needs to establish that the bite from Willi the German Shepherd was more than a “remote or trivial” cause in aggravating her preexisting wrist condition. Sally still has a great case under California’s dog bite law.
For any questions on California dog bite law, please call Brian Mathias Law, serving both sides of the Monterey Bay. Ready to stand up for your rights?