Even the most well-behaved dogs can get startled and lash out. If your dog has bitten or injured another individual, it helps to know what the law says and what you can do to mitigate the damage.
California, unfortunately, stands out in statistics over dog bites. No other state experiences a higher number of dog bites. And, rather than showing signs of improvement, some areas like Sacramento County have seen ensuing emergency room visits double in the past two decades, the Sacramento Bee reports.
At the same time, California ranks among the top 10 states for the highest average dog bite claim. While the nationwide average topped $43,000 in 2019, California settlements were significantly higher at $51,264.
That same year, the total nationwide claim value for dog bites reached a staggering $802 million, according to an analysis of data from State Farm, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Insurance Information Institute.
So, what does California dog bite law say?
Here’s an important fact to remember: When it comes to dog bite injury claims, California is one of 36 strict liability states. In other words, if you are the owner of the offending dog, you are liable for damages you dog caused by biting another person, even if your dog has never hurt anyone in the past or exhibited “vicious propensity.” One may also be liable under a different theory of law for a dog attack, such as a dog attempting to attack and knocking someone over, even if they do not bite.
This stands in contrast to some other states that adhere to a “one-bite rule” under which an owner would not be held liable unless the dog had bitten someone in the past or shown aggressive behavior toward people.
California Civil Code 3342 stipulates that “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.”
Strict liability applies to a few scenarios that may surprise you.
- Let’s say, for example, your dog attacks another dog, knocking down its owner or someone else during the tussle. Even if both dogs are leashed, you could be held liable if the other party suffers an injury, like a broken arm.
- If your dog bites someone who lawfully steps onto your property to, for example, deliver mail, make a sales call, or introduce themselves, you are fully liable for any bite injuries and resulting complications. You may, in fact, even be liable if someone is unlawfully on your property and your dog bites the person.
A single bite can, in a worst-case scenario, lead to medical costs, lost wages, emotional trauma, and more that the victim can sue for. Generally, though, “pain and suffering” do not qualify for compensation.
How can you protect yourself?
A word on breeds
As the statistics show, even well-behaved dogs can have a bad day. But some are more likely than others to act aggressively. When the researchers for a ScienceDirect study evaluated the severity of dog bites in children, these breeds emerged in the top:
- pit bull
- mixed breed
- German shepherd
Consequently, many home insurance companies do not cover all breeds (pit bulls and Rottweilers are often left out). Always check your home insurance for coverage before buying or bringing home a dog.
The role of homeowners insurance
Still, the personal liability coverage on your home or renters insurance can potentially protect you in a dog bite claim. Many standard policies come with $100,000 in personal liability. Although the average claim in California is half of that amount, many also do exceed it, in which case you could be financially responsible for the remaining settlement. Check with a reputable insurance agent to make sure you are adequately covered.
In one notable case, the defendant’s homeowner’s insurance provider agreed to pay the policy limit of $300,000 to Christina Khang, negating the need for litigation. She encountered an aggressive Rottweiler while out for a walk in a public park. The leashed dog was too strong for the defendant’s son who didn’t have the strength to stop the dog when it, unprovoked, bit Khang. She hired Penney & Associates to seek compensation for the injuries she suffered to her arms and the top of her head.
Do you need legal help?
If your dog has injured another individual or if you or a loved one have been bitten by a dog, you’re navigating a challenging legal environment. Insurers tend to use various tactics to avoid paying out policy maximums. Lack of corroborated evidence and counterclaims can also drag litigation on for months, or even years.