How to Prove Liability in a Dog Bite Case

Proving liability in a dog bite case depends on the circumstances and state. In California, the pertinent piece of civil code is section 3342. The first sentence of this legislation states, “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.”

It then proceeds to outline exceptions to the rule. The key takeaway is that California has a strict liability when it comes to evaluating dog bites. Unless a dog bite falls into one of the exceptions, owners have to compensate victims even if there was no prior sign of aggression.

If you sustained a canine-related injury, it is still on you to prove liability. This stipulation is known as having the burden of proof. It means that claimants must prove the injury and liability to win damages. Having enough evidence can make or break a case when deciding whether to proceed with legal action. 

The following content will walk you through how to prove liability in a dog bite case. That includes what dog bite laws are currently on the books and how to gather evidence. Here is everything you need to know about moving ahead with your potential case. 

California Strict Liability Law For Dog Bites

According to the CDC, humans sustain nearly 4.7 million dog bites each year, with 800,000 cases requiring medical attention. This data only includes reported incidents, so odds are that figure is even higher. Furthermore, research indicates that dogs were responsible for $1 billion in property damage in 2018.

California’s approach to compensating for damages hinges on Civil Code 3342. It provides the guideline for what it takes to prove liability in a dog bite case. Working off the first sentence, here are the essential terms to know:

Strict Liability

Strict liability states hold an individual or party responsible for their actions. For example, if someone kept wild animals or drove drunk, the law would hold them liable if there was an injury as a result of these actions. Even if the defendant took precautions to minimize the risks, they are still at fault.

When proving liability in a dog bite case, you don’t have to show negligence. In other words, the defendant could have acted responsibly, even though an injury occurred. For instance, if a pet owner builds a fence to contain their dog, but the dog escapes and bites someone, they aren’t excused of liability because they took measures to contain the dog.

Public Place or Lawfully on Private Property

California defines a public place as an area that is open to the public. That can include but is not limited to a park, sidewalk, alley, driveway, parking lot, or automobile. It also includes public buildings, such as a mall or restaurant.

The second stipulation is lawfully being on private property. State and federal law grant power to parking attendants, delivery services, and post officers to be on private property so that they can do their job. These individuals do not need an invitation or consent to be on the property.

Other people can go on private property if they have consent from the owner. The consent can be implied or explicit, though it may limit an individual to certain parts of a home. If someone oversteps the limitations of consent, the law classifies them as a trespasser.

Exceptions to the Rule

There are several extenuating circumstances. If any of these scenarios apply to a case, the defendant may not be held liable. They are as follows:

Trespassing

According to the civil code, the defendant will not be strictly liable if “the victim was not lawfully on the private property and was a trespasser.” One example would be someone robbing or burglarizing a home.  The victim may still get damages if the defendant was negligent.  

Law Enforcement Animal

Law enforcement animals have relatively broad authority under the law so that they can perform their professional duties. Handlers are exempt from liability if the victim harassed or provoked the dog. The same applies to a bite or injury that occurred during a criminal investigation, the execution of a warrant, the apprehension of a suspect, or the defense of a police officer.

Each of these scenarios demonstrates the dog performing their job or protecting its owner. For instance, apprehending a suspect naturally requires the canine to bite a person’s clothing or body to stop them. If the law enforcement dog bites an innocent bystander, the organization may be strictly liable.

The Victim Assumed Risk

Some professions come with “assumed risk” when it comes to handling animals. Also known as the “veterinarian rule,” the provision says there is a foreseeable risk of a dog bite due to the line of work. Examples include shelter workers, kennel workers, and veterinarians. While someone at these jobs can file a dog bite case, they can’t hold the defendant to strict liability.

The Victim Was at Fault

A dog bite might occur due to the behavior of the victim. This notion is known as comparative fault in legal terms. However, even if the victim is partially to blame for the accident, they may claim some damages. 

Homeowner Insurance Liability Claims

One consideration for proving liability in a dog bite case is whether the defendant has homeowner’s insurance. Many homeowners and renter’s insurance policy will cover damages for dog bites, upwards of $100,000 to $300,000. If the damages exceed the threshold, the owner is responsible for paying the remaining sum.

Not all homeowners are eligible for insurance that covers their pets. Many insurers don’t want to assume the risks associated with some dogs. According to DogBites.org, pit bulls were responsible for 72 percent of fatal canine attacks on humans, even though they represent only seven percent of the dog population. This statistic is not to say that pit bulls are the most dangerous breeds, but that they pose a potential liability to the owners and insurers.

Similarly, insurers may not issue coverage if the dog has a history of aggression or biting people. If the dog has bitten someone before, the insurer may offset the risk by charging a higher premium and offering non-renewable homeowner’s insurance. Owners may offset these built-in expenses by taking measures to train their dogs, such as behavior modification courses or by building a fence on their property.

Most homeowner’s insurance policies cover canine-related injuries under personal liability or medical payments for others. In liability cases, the homeowner with the attacking dog would file a claim under the personal liability provision. This move potentially covers legal expenses, such as court and attorney’s fees.

This provision is where the $100,000 to $300,000 worth of coverage comes into play. That figure may be higher or lower depending on the breed of dog, its history, its size, and your preferences for liability. For instance, a homeowner may opt for a million-dollar policy to protect against the risk of compensating for medical bills plus pain and suffering expenses.  

The other coverage provision is for medical payments. Someone may file a claim to the insurer here if their dog bites someone, and the victim doesn’t want to sue. Instead, the victim wants compensation for medical bills. Coverage ranges from $1,000 to $10,000 for most policies.

Gathering Evidence to Prove Liability

If you sustain a dog bite, the first consideration is safety. You should seek medical attention immediately and potential call animal control or 911. Make sure to get the owner’s information, including their name, address, and phone number so that you can get in touch with them in the future.

The best thing you can do to prove liability in a dog bite case is to take pictures and videos. That includes capturing photos or video of the bite marks, the dog, and evidence around the scene of the incident. It is essential to document this evidence as soon after the attack as possible to avoid tampering.

For instance, a dog may break through its fence en route to biting your arm. If this is the case, your case will go significantly further if you can take photos of the broken fence after your medical treatment. Additionally, preserve the torn or bloodied clothing. Do not wash the items as that would likely eliminate DNA evidence connecting the dog to the scene. 

Similarly, video of the dog barking, attacking, or showing aggressive behavior can be a powerful and persuasive piece of evidence in the courtroom. Video is arguably the most impactful form of documentation, though it is challenging to obtain, especially if you are the victim. A person should not jeopardize their health or safety for the sake of a video.

Another useful way to prove liability in a dog bite case is with witness statements. These statements come from people who saw the attack happen and are willing to testify to what they witnessed. Of course, a witness does not have to be at the scene to be helpful. Neighbors who see the defendant’s dog daily may be able to provide evidence of the dog barking or showing aggressive behavior in the past. 

While this next step applies to the process as a whole, it is essential to take notes of the events. After receiving medical treatment, record the details of the attack in as much detail as possible via video, audio, or writing.

These notes can provide essential information to support your case. Detailing the process while it is fresh in your mind will also minimize the chance of error. If your injuries were severe, it is worth the time to document any pain and suffering sustained as a result.

Finally, get a copy of all the medical bills related to the incident. That can include but is not limited to physician’s notes, x-rays, lab tests, and any other pertinent hospital records. The documented costs of each medical bill will provide a sturdy framework when it comes to determining how much to ask for in damages in court.

Remember, when proving liability in a dog bite case in California, you do not have to prove negligence. Barring certain exceptions, the dog owner is strictly liable for their dog’s action. That is, regardless of whether they took precautions to prevent the attack. 

The only time you have to show negligence in California is if you were unlawfully on the property. In those cases, you would have to prove four distinct elements in court. They are as follows:

  • Duty of Care – the owner had a responsibility to prevent the dog from causing harm
  • Breach of Duty – the owner breached their obligation by not taking reasonable action to prevent harm
  • Cause – the owner’s negligence was a proximate cause for the harm

The Bottom Line

Dogs are man’s best friend. They are endless sources of joy, companionship, and adventure. As Americans own nearly 75 million dogs from Afghan hounds to Shih Tzus, dogs are liable to cause damage to humans and personal property.

The first step to proving liability in a dog bite case is to examine the circumstances of the attack. You can look at where the attack took place and how to determine potential liability. Remember, there are certain exceptions for people in law enforcement, as well as mail carriers, veterinarians, and kennel workers.

The second step is to check whether the homeowner’s insurance covers the claim. If you are the victim, contact a lawyer who is experienced in handling dog bite cases. If your dog bites someone and your insurance covers canines, you will want to file a claim under the correct provision to avoid paying legal or medical expenses out of pocket.

Finally, when it comes to proving liability, there are a few essential steps to take to win a dog bite case. After seeking medical treatment, document the attack as thoroughly as possible with photos, videos, and witness statements. Taking thorough notes injunction with medical bills will go a long way towards overcoming the burden of proof needed to be successful in your claim.