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Dog owner’s liability in bite cases in California

Unintentional bites from our dogs raise doubts about our degree of guilt in the incident. Imagine, for example, the following scenario: on a sunny day, we have decided to take our dog for a walk on the beach. At a certain point in the day, a person jogs along with our dog, causing it a startle. Immediately our pet, given its quality of instinctive animal, leaps on the individual and bites him.

In a scenario like that, the question arises as to how responsible we are for the accident. In this article we will examine precisely what California law says in cases such as the one we’ve discussed; we will also evaluate the arguments a dog owner can use and how effective they can be in a jury.

Possession of a dog and its behaviour may have legal repercussions. It is therefore important to be informed about the legal aspects surrounding this type of case.

Time limit for filing a dog bite claim

First of all, it is good to know that regulations regarding dog bites can vary depending on the state. Therefore, it cannot be generalized and it is necessary to examine the laws of each State.

Now, in the case of California, when we talk about the time limit for filing a dog bite claim, the regulation states that it is 2 years. So, if a person who has been attacked by a dog decides to complain two years later, his complaint will not be valid.

Owner’s liability under California law

owner's liability under california law

Once we are clear about this, we will proceed to evaluate the conditions established by California law for the owner of a dog to be found guilty in case his pet has injured a person. Basically, California law stipulates three conditions for declaring the owner’s liability:

1) That the dog has bitten a person; and that, furthermore

2) The act of the dog was performed in a public place; or

3) The act of the dog has been carried out on private property and the person attacked was present on that property legally.

However, the regulations establish an exception: the owner will not be found guilty or liable for the incident if the dog in question was doing military or police work. However, dog attacks on military and/or law enforcement duties are not just bites; therefore, the California statutes only become effective as long as the injury was caused by a specific bite.

But these situations are so delicate that there are no whites or blacks, but rather there are nuances in each of them. For example, a dog can hurt a person without the need to bite him or her through scratches. And in this scenario, the dog owner can be found guilty for not having taken the necessary precautions to prevent the dog from committing such an act.

We have previously pointed out that “Possession of a dog and its behaviour may have legal repercussions”. In most cases, the owners of a dog that has bitten another person are found responsible for the incident, but on light charges. However, these lenient charges can turn into severe and criminal charges in certain scenarios: for example, if you misrepresent your personal data to the person who has been a victim of your dog.

Another scenario in which criminal liability can be attributed to a dog owner is when the animal is prone to aggressive behavior or when it is trained to attack. And, of course, we cannot leave aside those cases in which the dog causes very serious injuries or even death.

It is clear that these cases can be counted with the fingers of the hands, but they are useful to understand the gravity a dog bite case can acquire.

Strict liability

As we said earlier, each of the states has a specific and special regulation on the degree of guilt of a dog owner in bite cases. However, the regulations have been classified in two ways: on the one hand, States that handle a “negligence only” regulation; on the other hand, States that have strict liability law.

What exactly is “strict liability” and which one exactly does the State of California handle? California has strict liability regulations. This regulation provides that the owner of a dog who has injured another person shall be liable for the accident whether or not he knew that the dog was going to do so. The regulations also stipulate that the owner’s guilt cannot be exempted even if it is the first time the animal has acted in this way.

In short, strict liability is a legal concept that does not allow exceptions or justification in determining the guilt of a dog owner.

However, let us examine the application of strict liability from the point of view of the injured person: obviously, this legal status is of considerable benefit to him, since he only needs to prove that he was in a public place; or that he was legitimately on private property. There is no need to present evidence of the owner’s prior knowledge of the dog’s behavior; or evidence of the owner’s negligence if he did not take the precautions required to prevent the dog’s behavior.

Possible defenses

Although in most cases the dog owner is found legally liable, there are exceptions. In other words, there have been cases in which the dog owner has been able to absolve himself of guilt.

These cases can be classified in two: first, those in which the person who was attacked by the canine was on private property without the landlord’s consent; and those in which the canine was part of a military and/or police operation.

As it is obvious to intuit, these are the only possible defenses that can be used by the owner of a dog who has bitten another person: the owner is not found guilty if the injured person was illegally on private property because he must abide by the consequences of “self-defense”.

On the other hand, guilt does not apply either if the dog did military and/or police work for the simple reason that the animal was carrying out a function according to the law. But in these cases, the military and police forces have also resorted to an argument that has been proved valid: that the person attacked provoked the act of the dog. But we must stress that these arguments only apply to canines involved in military and police operations.

However, the last case is not as simple as it seems, because the police and military officers in charge of the operation must fill out forms and submit several reports precisely in order that a jury does not find them responsible for the canine attack on a person.


The absence of defenses for an indictment of guilt following a dog attack reveals a message: if you are going to have a dog, be cautious and responsible; make sure you take the necessary measures to prevent the dog from acting aggressively; if the dog is going to be surrounded by people, warn them about the dog and tell them not to get too close or play with it. Otherwise, you have to keep in mind that there’s no chance of excusing yourself on a jury.

It should be noted that this informative article is not intended to deter people from having dogs. On the contrary, not only do we have nothing personal against canines, but we also recognize the benefits of having one. This article is intended to promote a sense of responsibility to dog owners. Bite cases are on the rise, so it is necessary to start taking measures that can reduce them.

Whether you own a dog or not, we invite you to share this text so that more people can be informed about it. We also want to emphasize that we are a team of highly experienced lawyers, so we are able to provide legal and juridical information to anyone who needs it.

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