California Dog Bite Laws: Owner Liability

Police dog
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Whether viewed from the perspective of the pet owner, the victim or the distressed pup, dog bites are pretty much the opposite of fun for all parties involved. California Civil Code – specifically, Section 3342 through 3324.5 – makes owner liability clear in the case of dog bites, but in some situations, California dog bite laws also dive into aspects such as the location of the incident and the use of dogs in military and police work, among other factors.

California Dog Bite Laws: Liability

California dog bite laws start off clearly. In California Civil Code Section 3342(a), the very first sentence reads, "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."

According to precedent established in the 1998 case of Johnson v. McMahan, tried in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, a dog grabbing someone with its teeth still counts as a bite even if skin isn't broken. In this case, a dog grabbed hold of a man's pants, pulling him from a ladder and causing injury. The court found the dog owner liable under Section 3342.

This places California among the more strict states, in terms of a dog owner's liability for their pet's actions, but it still leaves plenty to unpack, chiefly in regards to the definitions of place and why the person who is bitten is at said place.

Location, Location, Location

The bit in California Civil Code 3342(a) that says "while in a public place" is pretty easy to understand right off the bat, but what about the "lawfully in a private place" part? Does that mean that the dog owner is still responsible, even if the bite occurs on the dog owner's property?

Generally speaking, yes it does.

Lawfully is the keyword here, though. Per California state's Civil Code, people are lawfully in a private place if they're there upon the property owner's invitation, whether that invitation is expressed or implied. The story changes, however, when people working for the federal or state government come into the picture.

Exceptions to Liability

If someone is on private property in the performance of state or federal duties – such as police officers, military personnel or United States Postal Service employees – California state law offers them some canine protections. If they're bitten by a dog while they're in service, liability still falls to the dog owner, even if the person receiving the bite has not been invited to the property in question. In the eyes of the state, these people are still lawfully on the property because they are engaged in carrying out a legal duty.

This exception works when the scenario is flipped, too. When military or governmental agencies use dogs in their work, the owner of the dog – which is, in this case, considered federal or state property – will not be held responsible for biting under a variety of circumstances, including when:

  • The dog is assisting a federal or state employee in the apprehension or holding of a criminal suspect, or someone whom the employee has reason to consider a suspect.
  • The dog is involved in the investigation of a potential crime.
  • The dog is involved in the execution of a warrant.
  • The dog is defending a peace officer or another person.
  • The dog is defending itself from provocation, harassment or annoyance.

In addition to these exceptions, the California Civil Statute of Limitations imposes a time limit of two years from the date of the event for filing a claim on dog bites.

What About "Dangerous" Dogs?

When bites aren't part of the incident, but a dog causes injury in another way – such as by escaping from a pen and knocking someone down, for instance – the owner of the dog may still be found liable if it can be proven in a court of law that the injuries were a result of the owner's negligence. Common precautions the court looks for on the part of the owner include chains, fences and visible warning signs, like the classic "Beware of Dog" sign.

Tucked away in a corner of the California Food and Agriculture Code, state law defines a "potentially dangerous" dog as one that, at least two times in the last 36 months, has engaged in behavior that requires a defensive action by a person outside of the owner's property or that has killed, bitten or injured another animal outside of the owner's property. If a dog has at any time severely injured or killed a human being, the state considers it a "vicious dog." By law, these dogs require suitable enclosures and may even be impounded by the state.

Dogs that have committed acts otherwise defined as "dangerous" or "vicious" will not be declared as such by the state if these actions were directed toward criminal trespassers, in defense of another person or in response to abuse inflicted upon the dog. A dog's past behavior doesn't come into play when assessing negligence charges, nor does it factor in when a dog bites someone. However, it may come to the table when the court questions how much control of the dog is considered reasonable on the part of the owner.

California Dog Bite Law: Quarantine and Damages

When a dog bite occurs, California law requires the victim and the dog owner to report the incident to a local health officer for investigation. This aims to assess the health risks of the bite and care needs for the victim, as well as to provide info to help the authorities reduce the possibility of bites in the future.

After the bite, the state also requires a dog to be quarantined, for the purpose of determining whether or not the dog is rabid. Quarantine, which can occur either at the owner's property or a local animal care center, typically lasts at least 10 days, during which time a local health official assesses whether or not the dog displays symptoms of rabies. If no symptoms are visible at the end of that period, the dog will be released from quarantine.

If the case goes to court and the dog owner is found guilty, the victim may be entitled to compensatory damages related to the injury. These damages often include reimbursement for medical bills related to the bite, potential lost wages during down time from the injury and, speaking much more broadly, issues related to pain and suffering as a result of the incident. In California, pain and suffering are considered non-economic damages and (with the exception of medical malpractice cases) there is no cap on the amount of monetary damages to which a victim may be entitled.

Read More: California Dog Bite Quarantine Law


  • According to California law, dog owners are liable for the bites their pets dole out, though exceptions apply in cases such as trespassing.

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