Dogs are considered “man’s best friend,” and they are seen as loyal companions that will accompany their owners faithfully in every location imaginable, from the home to the beach. However, as animals, they can become aggressive at times, biting and causing injuries or even death.
Our law firm handles many dog bite cases, and plaintiffs are often concerned that the dog owner will claim the injured party provoked their dog as a defense. Actually, dog owners usually cannot avoid liability by claiming they had no idea their dog would act aggressively. Under California law, dog owners are considered strictly liable for any bite-related injuries caused by their pets.
Strict liability is a superhighway to winning a personal injury case in court. In most injury cases, your lawyer will first have to prove that the defendant was negligent (basically, that their conduct fell below a reasonable standard of care) whereas in a strict liability case, this step may be skipped entirely.
Once a bite has occurred, another important question plaintiffs often have is whether the defendant has insurance coverage for the hospital bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and other money damages that can accompany a dog bite because a dog bite case with injuries but without insurance coverage may not be worth pursuing.
In this article, you will learn about the civil liability for dog bites and California’s Dog Bite Statute, specifically Civil Code 3342. It will also go over the situations in which homeowner’s insurance may or may not cover dog bites.
California’s Dog Bite Statute
Section 3342 of the California Civil Code states that the dog owner is strictly liable for injuries suffered by anyone bitten by the dog. That means your lawyer does not have to prove negligence, but can skip straight to the good part – proving money damages. This is true whether the victim was in a public place or lawfully on private property when the dog bite incident happened.
Under the California Civil Code, a person is lawfully on private property when they are on such property performing any duty imposed on them by California laws or the United States regulations or at the owner’s express or implied invitation. Whether a plaintiff was considered trespassing is not as obvious as it may seem at first blush. For example, if a landowner is aware that the children next door often come on their land to play and a dog bite occurs, those children may be considered “known trespassers” and the landowner will usually be liable for their injuries.
In addition, liability attaches regardless of the dog’s previous viciousness or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness. Basically, dogs do not get “one free bite” in California before subsequent bites incur liability for the owner. In other words, the dog owner can’t argue that they had no idea their pet could be dangerous or took precautions to prevent the dog from hurting someone.
Defining Bite Under California Law
If a dog grabs someone with its teeth but does not break the skin, it may still be considered a bite. In a case where a worker fell from a ladder after a dog closed its jaws on his pants, the court ruled that the dog’s owner was liable for the worker’s injuries under Section 3342.
The court emphasized that “bite” does not necessarily equate to a puncture or tearing away. While dog bites commonly result in pierced skin, nothing in the term “bite” requires the skin to be broken or a wound to be inflicted. Therefore, a wound is not needed for the Dog Bite Statute to apply. Of course, a case with a more severe penetrating injury will usually be worth more in damages in the civil system.
Instances When a Dog Owner May Not be Strictly Liable (But May Still Be Negligent)
While strict liability is imposed on dog owners, there are instances in which the owner can claim a defense. The exceptions to strict liability are spelled out in Section 3342 of the Civil Code:
- The victim was trespassing on private property (this analysis should only be conducted by an attorney; it is not a good idea to assume whether a trespass occurred for legal purposes without a lawyer’s advice)
- The dog is a law enforcement animal used by a government agency for military or police work
- The victim assumed the risk (this usually applies to veterinarians and kennel workers whose occupation comes with a foreseeable risk of being bitten by a dog)
- The victim was partly at fault for their injuries because they either harassed, annoyed, provoked, struck, or hurt the dog
It should be noted that even if a defendant is not considered strictly liable under Section 3342, they may still be found negligent, and therefore be responsible for damages. So no matter what, it is always a good idea to consult an experienced personal injury lawyer about a dog bite.
Does a Homeowner’s Insurance Cover Dog Bites?
In California, homeowner’s insurance may cover a dog bite, and it is the most common way your personal injury lawyer can help recover damages. Homeowner’s insurance requires the policyholder to opt into dog bite coverage in some instances. In other cases, the insurance company does not cover certain dog breeds colloquially known as “bully breeds” such as pitbulls and rottweilers, which have a statistically higher chance of causing a dog bite claim.
The best way to determine if a homeowner’s insurance policy covers dog bites is to read the insurance policy. If you have been bitten, your attorney can help obtain a copy of the defendant’s policy and evaluate coverage. Therefore, it’s a good idea to contact a lawyer right away after a bite.
To assess coverage, here are some things your attorney will check:
- Check the personal liability provisions
Attorneys will check the personal liability provisions in a homeowner’s insurance policy. This is also where we find the policy limits (how much coverage the defendant has). If you have dog bite coverage, but your insurer refuses to cover the costs, you may be able to file a bad faith insurance claim.
- Dog bites that occur off-property are usually covered
Homeowner’s insurance usually covers dog bites that occur off-property. This is helpful because victims of dog bites may seek compensation for their injuries no matter where the bite occurred such as at a park or at the beach, even if the only coverage is homeowner’s insurance.
- If the defendant is not a homeowner, we can check for renter’s insurance
A defendant’s renter’s insurance is similar to homeowner’s insurance in that it can cover dog bites, but the renter often must opt in to receive coverage. The coverage limits on renter’s insurance are usually lower.
- Check for insurance policy limits
Every insurance policy in California has a top payout limit that is based on how much the policyholder pays in premiums. Severe dog bites can be deadly, and the resulting injuries can far exceed a defendant’s insurance coverage. A personal injury lawyer can help an injured plaintiff to file a lawsuit, conduct discovery to learn the coverage limits, and even to find out the defendant’s policy limits in informal ways prior to filing a lawsuit.
Reach Out to an Experienced Injury Lawyer to be Sure
If you have been involved in a dog bite, it pays to learn about dog bite insurance and animal-related liability laws. This will enable you to protect yourself.
If you need a dog bite lawyer, RMD Law has a team of experienced personal injury attorneys in Orange County ready for the tireless representation you deserve. Give us a call right now for a free case evaluation.