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Can I Sue for a Dog Bite in California?

A dog bite may not seem like the kind of action you sue over until you see the devastating consequences of a dog bite up close. Dog bites, especially those that break the skin, can involve expensive trips to the emergency room, thousands of dollars in medical bills, prolonged pain and suffering, and extended trauma which can persist for years. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to serious injuries in dog bites, but no is immune. There is much misinformation out there about whether you can sue for a dog bite – the biggest myth being that dog owners in California are allowed “one free bite” before being sued (they are not) – and, if you or a family member has been bitten by a dog, you should educate yourself on your options for pursuing recovery through a dog bite action.

Dog bite law, like much of personal injury, is a product of state law, so different states will impose their own dog bite laws. Some states have what is sometimes referred to as a “one free bite” law which essentially says that a dog owner is not liable for another’s injuries caused by their dog when it is the first time that the dog has bitten someone and the owner was not previously aware of the dog’s violent/vicious propensities.

This is not the case in California. Instead, California has a long-standing rule of imposing “strict liability” on dog owners whose dogs inflict injury through a dog bite. What this means is that if you are bitten by a dog while in public or on private property that you were lawfully positioned in (e.g. you were invited or otherwise allowed in and thus not trespassing), then the owner is liable to you for all injuries you have suffered, including medical costs, time away from work, pain and suffering and so on. There is no requirement that the dog have bitten in the past or that the owner had any knowledge of the dog’s propensity to bite another for you to win your case.

Note, however, that a plaintiff bit by a dog doing police or military work may be barred from obtaining recovery in a dog bite action, but it may be worth speaking to a dog bite lawyer to see whether your situation is covered by this exception or not.

Despite California’s strict liability statute, dog owners often try to deflect blame for the dog bite to the victim. California courts do recognize the defense of “assumption of the risk” in the context of dog bite cases, which means that a plaintiff who was aware of the risk of a dog bite but nevertheless interacted with or provoked the dog may be barred from recovery.

The idea here is that the courts do not want to encourage dog bite cases by people who knew of the significant danger of a dog bite but nevertheless risked it by interacting with the dog. That said, this is a high bar that the defendant is required to meet in making this argument. Simply playing with a dog in public or approaching it is usually not enough to prove assumption of the risk. Instead, the court will want to see that the plaintiff had or should have had a strong sense that the dog was dangerous and nevertheless assumed the risk, e.g. a plaintiff saw a dog behind a fence with a sign that said “vicious guard dog” and yet opened the gate to go play with the dog. Again, an experienced dog bite attorney can provide an analysis of your individual situation.

Furthermore, veterinarians and other workers who work with dogs for a living may not be able to pursue dog bite injuries in some cases, although they may do so when an owner knew of the dog’s tendencies and failed to warn the worker.

At The Law Offices of Andrew Ritholz in Pasadena, California, our attorneys have decades of experience in winning settlements and verdicts in all types of personal injury suits, including dog bite actions. Contact our office today to discuss your potential dog bite action.

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