Over 4.7 million people are bitten or otherwise attacked by dogs annually, with 800,000 of them bitten seriously enough to require medical attention. Each year, roughly 370,000 victims go to the emergency room for treatment of injuries due to being bitten by a dog.
Section 3342 of the California Civil Code makes the owner of a dog legally responsible (“liable”) for all damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or legally in a private place. The owner can be held liable for injuries from a dog bite even if they occur on the dog owner’s own property, if the person who is bitten was on the property lawfully, such as in the performance of his lawful duty (e.g., a postal carrier or public utility meter reader). The dog’s owner is also liable for any bites by the dog to persons on her property if the person was on the dog owner’s private property with the express or implied invitation or consent of the owner.
Although California Civil Code section 3342 imposes liability against the dog’s owner for its bites, this does not mean that the dog’s owner cannot raise any defenses that may cut off or reduce her liability. For instance, if the person was pulling the dog’s tail, kicking it, or otherwise annoying it, which led to the dog biting him, the person may be banned from recovery or the amount of his recovery may be reduced under the legal doctrine of “comparative negligence,” discussed in Chapter 2.
Young children are the most common victims of a dog bite. Children are especially vulnerable to being bitten by dogs because they don’t understand the danger involved when a person approaches a dog, even if they have petted or played with the dog before without incident. Almost 80 percent of injuries to children bitten by a dog are to their face, neck, and head. Even a small dog can inflict serious injuries on a defenseless child. Note that, generally speaking, a child under the age of five is considered by the law to be incapable of being comparatively negligent. So if a child under five years old is bitten or mauled by the dog, it is no defense that the child may have been teasing the dog, pulling its tail, or otherwise harassing the dog. Whether an older child is capable of understanding the risks involved in approaching a dog, petting it, pulling its tail, and so forth, is determined on a case-by-case basis.
Dog bites can range from a superficial bite that does not break the skin to a fatal mauling by the dog. Frequently the dog attacks the victim’s face, inflicting severe and disfiguring injuries. The dog may go after the arms and torso of a victim who is trying to protect himself. In many cases, it will be necessary to get a tetanus shot, and if the dog is not current with its rabies shots, the dog will have to be quarantined until it can be tested. If the dog is found to have rabies, the bite victim will have to undergo a series of painful anti-rabies injections to ward off the disease.
Certain breeds, such as pit bulls, have acquired a reputation as unusually aggressive and dangerous. In one study, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that pit bulls and Rottweilers accounted for 67 percent of human dog-bite-related fatalities, with pit bulls being responsible for the greater share of fatalities. The term “pit bull” actually refers to several breeds of dog in the same family. Most laws specifically define the category of “pit bull” to include the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and dogs with significant mixes of these breeds. A few jurisdictions also include the American Bulldog and Bull Terrier as falling within the definition of a pit bull.
Pit bulls frequently attack without provocation or warning, and the victim may be a family member as easily as it may be a stranger. As a fighting breed, pit bull dogs were bred to conceal warning signs before an attack. For instance, they rarely growl, bare their teeth, or issue a stare before they strike. While some pit bull proponents contend that they are only dangerous to other animals, media reports show otherwise.
Some people take the view that the pit bull has a “locking mechanism” in its teeth or jaw so that once the jaw clamps shut, it is practically impossible to get the dog to release its prey. Pit bulls often show “bite, hold, and shake” behavior when biting a person or other animal. Accordingly, some pit bull rescue organizations and advocacy groups recommend that owners of pit bulls carry a “break stick” with them to lever the dog’s jaws open if the dog does bite and clamp down on a person or another animal.
Some cities have passed laws prohibiting the ownership of pit bulls and certain other dangerous breeds, such as Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers. Some laws prohibit these breeds of dogs from going into certain public areas, and other laws require that the dog be muzzled when out in public.
Accordingly, if you have been seriously injured or a loved one killed by a dog belonging to one of these dangerous breeds, the insurance company is more likely to settle the case and to settle for a higher amount than if, say, a Collie or Springer Spaniel inflicted the damage. (Generally speaking, the amount of damage a Collie or Springer Spaniel can inflict pales in comparison to what pit bulls, Rottweilers, hybrid wolves, and Doberman Pinschers can do.) Also, because of the severe injuries they can cause—such as serious damage to the face requiring extensive reconstructive surgery—it is important that you obtain a law firm with experience in dog bite cases to help arrange that you get the best medical care possible for your often disfiguring injuries. In severe maulings, plastic surgeon and other medical expenses can run into tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in reconstructive surgery, such as skin grafting, tissue expansion, and scar diminishment.
Let’s say that you are walking down the street and a playful dog comes bounding toward you and jumps on you, knocking you to the ground, causing a broken limb, or hip or head injuries. Most cities and counties have laws requiring dogs to be on leashes and under the control of their owner or walker when off the owner’s or caretaker’s private property. The fact that this is the first time the dog has ever done something like this is no defense. The failure to have the dog on a leash, resulting in the dog causing injury, is called in legal terms “negligence per se.” It is not a defense to a violation of the leash law that the dog is trained to obey verbal commands or hand signals. Nor is it necessary for the victim to prove that the owner knew that her dog had a propensity to run at large, chase bicycles, or jump on strangers to hold her liable for injuries caused by her dog while it was running loose throughout the neighborhood.
A landlord generally is not liable for the injuries inflicted by his tenants’ dogs (or other animals), unless the landlord has actual knowledge of the presence of the tenant’s dog and its vicious nature. If the landlord knows of the vicious propensities of the dog and has the ability under the lease to order it removed or to terminate the lease altogether, the landlord may be held liable for allowing the dangerous dog to remain on the property without doing anything about it. For instance, if the landlord knows that a tenant on a month-to-month lease has a dangerous dog, the landlord may be required to give the tenant notice either to get rid of the dog or, if that fails, give the tenant notice of termination of the lease.
A veterinarian, kennel operator, or her employees generally are barred by the “veterinarian’s rule” from suing the owner of a dog for bites or other injuries inflicted by a dog while under their care. According to the veterinarian’s rule, a veterinarian or other person who by his profession works with dogs and other animals is held to have assumed the risk that he may be bitten or otherwise harmed by the animal.