I once represented the family of an elderly woman who was knocked to the ground by a loose dog in her neighborhood. When she fell, she struck her head on the concrete and suffered serious debilitating injuries that resulted in a rapid decline in her health over the next six months. She ultimately passed away. After vigorously defending the case, the dog owners eventually relented and agreed to settle the case. I have represented other clients who were attacked or bitten by unleashed dogs. The owners of these dogs were also held accountable.
This article addresses some theories of liability where dog owners fail to control their animals. Can they be held responsible when their dogs injure someone else, even if the dogs escaped and their animals injured someone else through no fault of the owners? In California, the answer is yes. Here’s how:
Strict Liability in Dog Attack Suits
Normally, in order for someone to win in court, they need to “make their case." This is a simple way of saying they need to meet their Burden Of Proof. In a civil case in California, the burden is generally “preponderance of the evidence" or, more simply, “more likely than not." The exception is where the doctrine of strict liability applies. Strict liability means that a person is responsible regardless of fault. While the injured party still needs to prove that the dogs were in fact owned by the defendants, no one needs to establish that there was any breach of duty as in a negligence case or that the owners intended to injure a third person such as in an Intentional Tort case (e.g. assault and Battery).
In the context of a dog bite or attack, as in those examples illustrated above, the mere fact that the dogs injured other people means that the owners are responsible, accountable, and liable, so long as they in fact are the owners. In addition to the traditional theory of negligence, therefore, an injured person may plead strict liability by alleging that the defendants owned the animal and the animal injured a third party.
Strict liability is memorialized in California Code section 3342 which states that, “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."
Negligence Per Se
An alternative or additional theory that might be pled is negligence per se. Negligence per se means that, again, breach of a standard of care does not have to be proven if it is proven that there was a violation of a statute or law. San Diego County, like many other jurisdictions, provides requirements for owners, that, if violated, may subject them to liability under a theory of negligence per se. These code sections are memorialized in San Diego County Code of Regulatory Ordinance Nos. 62.699(a) and (b). Generally, these provisions require that owners of dogs must prevent their animals from being “at large" and shall be on a leash or controlled by the owners. In pleading negligence per se, a plaintiff need only state that defendants owned their animals, defendants failed to comply with the applicable law(s), and the plaintiff was injured as a result of that failure.
As discussed, there are numerous ways to plead and prove theories of liability for dog bites and/or attacks. Given California law in this area, as well as laws in other jurisdictions, it is often easier to establish liability under theories of strict liability and negligence per se for dog bites/attacks than it is for other types of personal injuries.