You're trail running through Runyon Canyon with your favorite furry friend when the unthinkable happens: growling pit bull blocks your path and attacks Princess. You try to defend her but the pit bull just turns his attentions to you. Dogs are so varied in build and temperament that there is a decent chance you'll encounter (or own) a vicious dog at some point in your life. And if you are unlucky enough to suffer an injury as a result, the subsequent legal process can be daunting.
To help you make sense of what's to come, FindLaw has created this guide to your Los Angeles dog bite case.
California's dog bite law (section 3342) imposes strict liability on owners of dogs that bite someone. This means that you will still be held liable, even if your dog has no history of biting or vicious behavior; in California, every dog does not get one bite.
Although this rule seems straightforward, note some technicalities:
What happens to the dog?
Section 3342.5 (in the link above) provides potential corrective measures that may be taken after a dog attacks someone. Specifically, any individual or specified governmental agencies can bring an action against the animal's owner to determine whether conditions of the dog's treatment or confinement has been changed since the time of the bites to remove the danger presented by the animal.
These actions can only be initiated after the dog has bitten a human on two separate occasions, or if the dog has been trained to fight, attack, or kill and has bitten a human once. After a hearing the court can make any order it deems appropriate to prevent the recurrence of such an incident, including having the animal removed from the area or euthanized.
Many cities in Los Angeles County have municipal codes that differ from the state dog bite law. Some of these codes may eliminate some of the state law's technicalities. For example, the Beverly Hills Municipal Code provides:
Any person owning, controlling, or having care or custody of any animal shall be liable for any injury caused by such animal, and for any damage caused to any public property, or to any private property.
Vicious Propensities and the One Bite Rule
Alternatively, the injured individual can bring a lawsuit under the common law "one bite rule." Under this doctrine, the keeper of an animal is liable for damages it causes when he is aware of the animal's vicious or dangerous propensities. The two key elements of this claim are: (1) prior dangerous behavior by the dog and (2) the defendant's knowledge of this behavior.
This claim is obviously harder to prove than a strict liability lawsuit under the dog bite statute. However, the statute only applies to the owner of the dog. If you instead wish to bring a lawsuit against someone other than the owner who exerted physical control over the animal, such as a dog walker, this common law doctrine in indispensible.
Negligence Per Se
In California you are presumed to have acted negligently whenever you violate a law and cause an injury that the statute was designed to prevent. This "negligence per se" doctrine (section 669) comes into play in dog bite cases when someone violates animal control laws, such as walking a dog without a leash or letting it roam free without confinement.
It is usually good practice to plead negligence per se in addition to a claim under the dog bite statute in case the statute doesn't apply for some unforeseen reason, for example the injury was a scratch instead of a bite, or if the defendant is not the dog's owner.
California Code of Civil Procedure Section 335.1 provides that all most personal injury lawsuits including dog bites must be filed within two years of the incident. When the statutory time has passed, you lose the right to file a lawsuit.
If you are the defendant in a dog bite case, don't lose hope, there are a couple defenses you can try. First, if the injured individual was trespassing on your property when your dog attacked him, he was not in a lawful public place as required by the dog bite statute.
Although seemingly contradicted by the wording of the dog bite statute, California courts have always permitted the defenses of provocation, assumption of risk, and comparative negligence. Walking towards a dog or petting it is not considered provocation, but taunting or approaching an obviously vicious dog (thus exposing yourself to risks) may prevent recovery.
Finally, you can nitpick the fine print of the dog bite statute for technical inadequacies in the plaintiff's case. You can demonstrate that the injuries were not a bite, but instead a scratch or maybe caused when the dog knocked over the plaintiff. You can also show that you are not the owner of the dog in question, or dispute the identification of the dog.
Tips to Prevent Dog Bites
Check out the Human Society's website for some quick tips about how to protect yourself from a dog attack. If you sense a dog is about to attack you, do not turn your back to it. Instead, remain calm and motionless until the dog loses interest, and then slowly back away. If the dog attacks, try "feeding" it your jacket or purse to slip away.
Contact a qualified attorney.