Dogs bring an immeasurable amount of joy into our lives. But along with the benefits of dog ownership come tremendous responsibilities for California canine owners.

Whether you own a dog or are attacked and have an injury claim against the owner, it’s essential to understand the state’s laws over civil and criminal liability.

When are dog owners responsible?

California has strict dog-bite laws, and pet owners are responsible when their dog attacks people or pets. Victims can sue regardless of whether the animal has a dangerous history. That eliminates an owner’s defense that they didn’t know their dog was dangerous. However, there is a two-step requirement for the pet owner to be liable:

  1. The victim was bitten
  2. The incident happened in a public place, or the victim was lawfully in a private area

The second part of the requirement protects mail carriers, meter readers and others who have a legitimate reason to enter a person’s property.

Definition of a “dog bite”

It’s important to note that even if the dog doesn’t break the skin, the pet owner can still be charged under California’s dog-bite law. In 1998, a court ruled in favor of a worker who fell from a ladder after a dog closed its teeth around his pant leg.

Gray areas exist elsewhere regarding carelessness by owners. State statutes may not be enforced when bicyclists or motorcyclists are injured if the dog attacks the wheels and causes an accident. It may depend upon whether the cyclists had other options.

Controlling dangerous dogs

California has a separate legal process for owners with “problem dogs,” those with a troublesome history. A dog is considered dangerous if:

  • It forced anyone to defend themselves from unprovoked attacks in two separate incidents in the past three years
  • It bites someone without provocation resulting in a nonserious injury
  • It has killed or hurt another person’s pet without being provoked twice in three years

The law labels a dog as “vicious” if it kills or injures a person without provocation, or a court has already deemed the animal as dangerous, and the dog repeats the behavior, or the owner fails to meet the legal requirements for keeping it under control. In these cases, the dog is often put down and a judge may prohibit the animal’s owner from having another dog for up to three years.

Criminal and civil penalties can result

Pet owners face severe personal and financial consequences for failing to restrain their dogs. Criminal charges can result if they fail to control a dangerous canine. Felonies can result if the victim is killed or seriously injured.

Victims are advised to work with an experienced personal injury attorney to receive the compensation they deserve if they are attacked by a dog, regardless of whether the animal has a dangerous history. Plaintiffs must file a civil lawsuit within two years after the injury occurred.


By Maho | Prentice, LLP Attorneys at Law on February 22, 2021