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I love dogs. My childhood dog was a German Shepard/Doberman Pincher mix named “Bear.” She had the colors of a black bear, hence the name. I have fond memories of her and I exploring the backwoods near our home, playing fetch on the lawn and swimming in local ponds. She was a great dog with a mild disposition. Unfortunately, not all dogs have such a disposition, whatever the cause may be.
Of deaths caused by dog attacks, 44% of the fatalities in the United States are attributable to two breeds: Pit Bull dogs and Rottweilers. (See “Are Laws Prohibiting Ownership of Pit Bull Type Dogs Legally Enforceable,” May 15, 2000, JAVMA [Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association].) These breeds in particular are prone to cause devastating dog bite injuries because of the strength of their jaws. It should be noted that these breeds, with the proper love and training, can be lovable dogs. My references to dogs in this blog refers to any dog, not just Pit Bulls and Rottweilers.
California Civil Code section 3342 states that dog owners are strictly liable for bites from their dog regardless of fault. The Court in Hicks v. Sullivan (1932) 122 Cal.App 635, 637 held “. . . if the owner’s dog attacks someone, the owner should bear the economic cost of that injury regardless of any showing of fault and regardless of any showing of prior vicious propensities.” This case set legal precedence for future California dog bite law.
However, there are certain limitations to strict liability in California dog bite cases. First, the person who is attacked must in a public place or lawfully in a private place. Second, there must be a dog bite. However, this exception is loosely interpreted to include a bite on clothing or can be predicated on other grounds even if there was no attempt to bite. Delfino v. Sloan (1993) 20 Cal.App.4th 1429.
So, strict liability makes it fairly simple to show liability against a dog owner. However, it is much more difficult to show liability against a landlord if the dog owner is a tenant. First, the landlord must be previously aware of the dog’s vicious nature. For example, the landlord must have knowledge of prior attacks or knew the dog had vicious and dangerous propensities. This can include knowledge that the dog had a vicious reputation, the way the dog was kept and its size and breed. Radoff v. Hunter (1958) 158 Cal.App.2d 770, 773. Second, the landlord must have had the right to remove the dog from the leased premises.
Lastly, the person who is attacked can be held completely or partially at fault if he or she knew the dog was vicious and could have avoided the attack or provoked the dog. The facts here would have to be somewhat compelling, especially if it is known that the breed has vicious propensities.
So, a dog can indeed be man’s best friend. But, the wrong type of dog can lead to disastrous results to others and, in some cases, the pocketbook. To take a more proactive approach, check out the American Humane Association’s post on preventing dog bites for more information on how to avoid dangerous bites, dog bite statistics, and training your dog to avoid serious injury. If you or a loved one does sustain a dog bite injury, it is best to contact a California dog bite lawyer after seeking medical attention.
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