The reader should first review our article on Torts and on American Litigation. This article shall discuss a particular type of legal action, a claim against the owner of a dog by a person injured by the dog.


Basic Law:

“My dog has never bitten anyone in the past. I didn’t know my dog would bite someone. “

Regardless, it is very likely you can still be liable for injuries suffered by the victim. There is no free dog bite. That is a myth!

California Civil Code §3342 plainly states:

(a) 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, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness. …

There is no “free dog bite.” If you are walking your dog and a child comes up to pet the dog and you allow it and the dog bites the child, you are liable. If the mailman or deliveryman is on your property and your sweet, loving dog bites that person—you are liable. Period.

However, if a true trespasser gets bitten by your dog on your property, you may not be liable. Likewise, if your loving family pet bites the veterinarian, you may also escape liability.

In those many instances where you will be liable for a dog bite, you will be liable for “civil damages”. Under certain circumstances, you could also be liable for punitive damages or even prosecuted criminally for assault with a deadly weapon (the dog!). As a dog owner, you must take your responsibility seriously, and if your dog bites someone, there can be very serious consequences.


The Victim’s Recovery:

As a victim of a dog bite, you would be entitled to recover damages from the dog owner. Sometimes the owner’s insurance company will contribute to or pay the settlement. You will be entitled to:

(a) Reimbursement for medical bills.

(b) Lost wages if you cannot work for a period of time following the attack and/or become permanently disabled because of the attack, and

(c) General damages—pain and suffering.

Do not minimize the potential recovery for dog bites. Often, the victim of dog bites requires very expensive plastic surgery to repair the site of the attack. Often, the victim will require more than one medical procedure. The bills can often run into many thousands of dollars.

If the dog bites the victim in the face, the victim’s damages can be very significant between medical bills, loss wages and general damages.


Landlord’s Duties:

The general rule is that if the landlord knows of the tenant’s dog and its dangerous nature, then the landlord may be liable in addition to the owner. If you are the landlord, you are possibly exposing yourself to liability by accepting dogs.


What Happens If Your Dog Causes Injury While Roaming Off Leash?

Almost all cities have local ordinances which prohibit a dog owner from allowing a dog to run at large off the property without a leash. So, if the dog is roaming off leash and jumps up on someone and knocks them down, frightens them causing them to run into the street and be struck by a car, or knocks someone off their bicycle—more likely than not, the owner will be liable. It is generally considered to be negligence to allow a dog to roam off your property without a leash, regardless of whether the owner specifically knew at that time that the dog was off the property, roaming the neighborhood.

If the owner is found to be negligent, the owner can be liable for the victim’s:

(a) Medical bills,

(b) Lost wages, and

(c) General damages—pain and suffering.

You, as the dog owner, must make sure that gates and fencing are appropriate to keep the dog on the property at all times. We know of a case where a pregnant woman was walking by a house. The dog was behind a fence with a gate. The woman had a pathological fear of dogs. One of the dogs got out of the gate and began to chase the woman. The woman “lost it”, ran into the street in front of a passing car. The woman sustained very serious injuries and also lost her child. The recovery against the dog owner was significant.


Your Dog Injures/Kills Another Animal

Again, you as the dog owner will be liable under most circumstances.


After the Dog Bite

California Civil Code §3342.5 states that the owner of a dog that has bitten another person has a duty to then take “reasonable steps as are necessary” to remove any danger presented to other persons from bites by the dog.

California Civil Code §3342.5(b) states that whenever a dog has bitten a person on at least two occasions, any person, the District Attorney or City Attorney can bring an action against the owner of the dog to determine whether the dog should be removed from the owner or destroyed if necessary.


What To Do If You Have Been Bitten by a Dog

  • Talk to the neighbors in order to find out the nature of the dog, whether the dog is commonly allowed to roam the neighborhood, prior incidents and/or warnings to the owners that the dog posed a danger to others;
  • Find out who is the dog’s veterinarian—are the dog’s shots all current;
  • Check with County Animal Control—have they had contact with this dog in the past;
  • Look carefully at the scene—was the fencing intact, was the gate broken;
  • Take photographs of yourself, as well as the scene (if relevant);
  • Immediately obtain appropriate medical care;
  • Find out who owns the dog; and
  • Consider talking to an attorney to see what your rights are.


What the Owner Should Do After the Incident

  • As stated above, per California Civil Code §3342.5, the owner may have a duty to report the incident to County Animal Control;
  • Voluntarily provide information to the victim right away confirming that the dog’s shots are current and thus that there is no threat of rabies. If they are not, advise the victim immediately since medical care may be needed without delay;
  • Consider reporting the incident to your homeowners insurance carrier;
  • Take photographs if you feel that photographs will assist you in defending against any claims brought by the person that was allegedly bitten or injured by the dog;
  • Locate any favorable witnesses and pass their contact information on to your insurance company;
  • Do the necessary to train and restrain your dog at all times in the future; and
  • Talk to an attorney to obtain whatever protection may be available.



It was in San Francisco about a decade ago that criminal charges were brought against a couple who owned two large dangerous dogs that attacked and killed a neighbor in the building. Since many of us love dogs we may find it difficult to understand how dangerous they can be in the right circumstances. The law does recognize this and simply imposes upon the owner the duty to provide sufficient care and planning to minimize the danger to others.

You own the dog, you assume that responsibility.


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