Animal ownership is among the most polarizing issues in our increasingly polarized society.
On the one end, there are a few extremists who essentially believe that animals have no rights and exist solely to serve humans. On the other end, there are a few other extremists who almost feels as though the rights of people should take a back seat to the rights of animals. Both these positions have at least some element of validity, which contributes to the ongoing debate. One thing is certain: According to the Centers for Disease Control, dogs bite roughly 4.5 million people a year, and about one in five of these bites causes serious injury or death.
Furthermore, according to the Insurance Information Institute, California is among the worst states in the country for dog bites, in terms of the number of claims against homeowners’ insurance policies (1,684 – 1st), average cost per claim ($44,983 – 2nd), and total value of claims (75.8 million – 1st). In fact, California has almost three times as many dog bite victims as the next leading state. What is behind the epidemic of such incidents in the Golden State?
Dog Bite Law
One reason may be that California is a strict liability state in terms of animal attack law. Most jurisdictions use some form of the “one-bite rule,” which basically immunizes owners from liability unless the animal had attacked someone in the past or had shown dangerous propensities.
But according to Civil Code 3342, “[t]he 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.” In certain situations, dog bite victims can even sue police departments and other law enforcement agencies if their canine units cause excessive injury.
So, to obtain compensation, your injury attorney only needs to prove causation and damages by a preponderance of the evidence, which means more likely than not. Since there is such a large number of potential tortfeasors (negligent actors) and there is such a low threshold of proof for damages, it is actually somewhat surprising that the numbers are not even higher than they are.
Nearly all animal attacks involve Pitt bulls, Rottweilers, Doberman pincers, and other mastiff-breed animals. Most of these dogs are quite good-natured, but the attack-dog mentality is in their DNA, so the injuries are often extremely serious. In addition to the physical injuries, many victims are permanently traumatized and can no longer stand to be around dogs of almost any type.
Animal Attack Law
Note that California dog bite law only applies to bites; it does not apply to knockdowns, clawings, or other kinds of injuries. That being said, victims still have legal options.
Many municipalities and local governments have strict liability laws of their own. For example, in San Diego County, owners must “prevent the dog[s] from attacking, biting, or otherwise causing injury to any person engaged in a lawful act.” If dogs are not on leashes while in public or properly restrained while on private property, the owners are strictly liable for damages, at least in most cases.
If there is no such law, or if it does not apply, victims may proceed under a standard negligence theory. In California, landowners have a duty to keep their property reasonably safe, based on:
- Property Location: This factor looms large in swimming pool drownings and some other kinds of cases, but not so much in dog bite cases.
- Likelihood of Harm: The mastiff breeds are most likely to attack and children are the most likely victims, but any dog can bite any person for any reason at any time.
- Owner’s Knowledge: An owner can have either actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard, and this point is discussed below.
- Probable Severity of Harm: As mentioned earlier, serious dog bites are among the most serious accident-related injuries.
In determining a duty, a jury may also consider any other factors that the court deems relevant.
Insurance Company Defenses
In strict liability bite cases, insurance companies nearly always argue that the victim provoked the animal. Legally, victims provoked the animals if they physically inflicted pain on the animal sufficient to trigger a violent response, so mere teasing or approaching the dog are insufficient. Moreover, the defense does not apply by law if the victim was under 5 or if the victim was following a parent’s instructions.
In negligence cases, the insurance company generally argues that the animal owner did not know the dog was dangerous. Here, the rule comes from a Boston case in which a woman slipped on a banana peel. The court essentially rules that the longer the hazard had existed, the more likely it was that the owner had constructive knowledge (should have known about) said hazard. In an animal attack context, if the owner had the dog for several years, a court can conclude that, at one time or another, the owner saw the dog bare teeth, growl, snap, or bite.
California dog bit victims have several legal options. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in San Diego, contact Injury Trial Lawyers, APC. Home and hospital visits are available.