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Is the Dog Owner Liable in Dog Bite Claims?

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Posted on February 6, 2023

California is a dog-friendly state, with 40% of households including at least one dog. We love our pets, but it’s important to understand that while not all dogs bite, all dogs have the capacity to bite a person at any time. State Farm Insurance alone has paid out over a billion dollars in dog bite claims in the U.S. in the past decade.

Though several states have a “first bite” exception to liability for dog bites—based on the assertion that an owner may not believe their dog would ever bite a person until the first time it happens—California makes no exceptions for first-time biters. California’s liability laws place strict liability on dog owners, leaving them responsible for damages should their dog bite a person, regardless of the dog’s previous history. The dog owner’s insurance must pay damages if a dog bites a person and causes injury in California.

Understanding California’s Strict Liability for Dog-Bite Damages

Because California operates under a strict liability law for dog owners, it doesn’t matter if a dog has never bitten anyone before. California courts assume that dog owners are aware that a dog has the capacity to bite at any time. Therefore, by taking ownership of a dog, the pet owner automatically assumes strict liability for any damages caused by the dog should it bite.

California’s strict liability law for dog bites remains in place even on an owner’s personal property or in their home. Any place a person is legally allowed to be, such as the curtilage area around a home (the area around the front door, yard around the front door, or walkway to the front door), or inside the home as a visitor, the strict liability rule applies. This protects people lawfully on the property such as delivery personnel, postal workers, Girl Scout cookie sellers, and visitors so they can gain compensation for an injury caused by a dog on that property.

Are There Exceptions to California’s Strict Liability for Dog Bites?

Though California courts impose strict liability on dog owners, there are a few exceptions to the law that free owners from liability under very limited circumstances including:

  • If the person bitten by the dog was burglarizing or trespassing on a property (People are legally allowed to approach a home’s front door and are only trespassing if there is both a fence and a no trespassing sign)
  • If the dog was a police dog on the job
  • If the person purposefully assumed the risk of a bite, such as a dog trainer
  • If the victim works for the dog’s owner
  • If the victim provoked the dog intentionally and was partly at fault for the bite

While very few exceptions to the liability laws for dog owners exist, it’s important to understand when the dog owner’s liability is not in place.

Are Parties Other Than a Dog’s Owner Ever Liable for a Dog Bite?

While the dog’s owner is almost always responsible for a dog bite and liable for damages, there are some situations where other parties may be liable including under the following circumstances:

  • A caretaker, dog sitter, or dog walker may be liable if the dog bites someone while under that person’s control, but in these cases, strict liability does not apply. Liability only applies if the person in control of the dog at the time was aware of the dog’s propensity to bite
  • A property owner when aware that there’s a vicious dog on the property but the dog escapes due to a breach in a fence or through other defects on the property. For instance, in cases of guard dogs left at a business property
  • The owner of a rental property if they were aware that their tenants had a dog with a propensity toward attacking or biting and only if the property owner had a right to remove the dog from their property
  • Daycare owners who allow dogs on the facility property

While dog owners are the most likely liable party under California’s strict liability law for pet owners, it’s important to investigate every dog-bite situation’s unique circumstances to ensure the correct party’s insurance covers the damages. Contact our San Diego dog bite injury attorneys for more information.