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Are pet owners responsible when their “friendly” dog bites?

The vast majority of dog bites involve domestic dogs (someone’s pet). In fact, the victim is typically familiar with the animal and its owner.

What happens when a normally friendly pooch suddenly bites someone? Can a dog owner be held accountable if their pet has never attacked anyone before? What if the owner is a neighbor, friend or family member? A serious dog bite may lead to medical bills and lasting harm – putting you in the awkward position of initiating legal action.

California is a strict liability state for dog bites

California law is squarely on the side of the person injured by a dog. The doctrine of strict liability applies in dog bite cases. This means that pet owners are presumed to be liable for any injuries their animals inflict on people or other pets, even on the owner’s property. There are limited defenses to this presumption:

  • Trespassing – The person entered private property without express permission or a legitimate reason (visitor, delivery, meter reader, etc.) or was bitten in the commission of a crime.
  • Provocation – The victim taunted the dog, hurt it or otherwise caused the animal to react violently.

Young children are generally exempt from these defenses. A “Beware of Dog” sign is also not a defense in California.

“My dog never hurt anyone before.”

Once upon a time, dogs and their owners were allowed “one free bite.” The owner could not be held legally responsible if a previously docile and friendly pup bit someone for the first time. The victim would have to prove a vicious propensity – that the dog was a known menace that had bitten, chased or lunged at people before.

Under the strict liability law, the owner is responsible the first time their animal causes injury. The assumption of risk is on the part of person who chooses to harbor an animal.

The dog’s breed does not matter, either. According to the California Department of Public Health, while pit bulls (29 percent) and German shepherds (15 percent) account for the greatest number of bites, 11 percent of reported bites are by chihuahuas! Any dog can bite, whether it bites out of fear or territorial behavior or even “playing.” A big friendly dog can cause serious injuries when it jumps up and knocks a person down. All of these scenarios are compensable.

When the dog belongs to someone you know

Bringing an injury claim against a friend or relative is an uncomfortable situation. But dog bites can cause serious injuries, such as bite wounds, facial disfigurement, nerve damage and infections. In addition to physical scarring, some victims suffer lasting emotional trauma such as nightmares or extreme anxiety around all dogs. Those medical bills and damages can add up to thousands of dollars.

In most cases, a dog bite claim is a claim against the other party’s homeowner’s insurance policy (or renter’s insurance). You are not suing the person, per se, or seeking compensation from their personal assets. With a lawyer acting on your behalf, you have an additional buffer against awkward confrontations or demands. Furthermore, an attorney can properly document a claim for damages and counter any defenses the property owner or their insurer may raise.

Source:  Dog Bites and Animal Attacks (FindLaw.com)

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