Dog Owner Responsibility: Liability and Safety Tips

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There are approximately 90 million pet dogs in the US, with nearly half of all households having at least one dog. While most dogs pose no danger at all, there are still plenty of dog bites each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

  • There are more than 4.7 million people bitten by dogs each year in the US.
  • Around one in five people bitten require medical attention.
  • More than 50% of dog bites occur on the dog owner’s property.

What kind of injuries occur with dog bites?

Injuries from dog bites range in severity. Dogs have very powerful jaws. When they bite, whether because they are scared or out of aggression, they can inflict serious soft tissue damage. Severe bites can also damage tendons, ligaments, veins, and arteries. The worst dog bites can leave a victim disfigured. The elderly and young children are at the highest risk for dog bite injuries.

Immediate medical attention is often required for dog bites. In many cases, emergency surgery or plastic surgery is necessary to restore a person’s functionality and appearance.

Is the dog owner liable when a bite occurs?

Dog owners are usually liable for any injuries their dog causes if the following situations exist:

  • They knew the dog had a tendency or history of causing such injuries.
  • A state or local statute makes the owner liable.
  • The injury was caused due to a dog owner’s carelessness or negligence.

In California, section 3342 of the Civil Code says that a dog owner is liable for damages if:

  • The damages were caused by a dog bite, and
  • The person bitten was in a public place, or they were lawfully in a private place

Please understand that the state’s dog bite statutes do not apply if the dog injured someone without biting them. For example, if a dog knocks someone down and they cut themselves, this will not be considered a dog bite issue.

California is a “strict liability” dog bite state, meaning that an owner cannot get out of liability by saying that they did not know their dog would act aggressively. Dog owners are responsible for all damages resulting from the dog bite even if their dog has never bitten anyone before.

What if the dog bites someone who was trespassing on private property?

Generally, anyone who is illegally trespassing and is bitten by a dog will not be able to recover any damages from the dog’s owner. Government agencies that employ the use of dogs in law enforcement can likely not be held accountable if the dog was acting in the course of its duties.

What if your homeowner’s insurance does not cover the total costs?

Both homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies typically cover dog owner’s dog bite liability. However, a claim may exceed the limits of the insurance policies. In those cases, the dog’s owner will be personally responsible for all damages over the covered amount, including legal expenses.

Dog bite lawsuits can end up costing several hundred thousand dollars, even for those won by the homeowner. Homeowners with dogs may want to consider purchasing a personal excess liability policy, also known as an umbrella policy.

What can dog owners do to be responsible and prevent bites from occurring?

Dog owners should properly train and control their dogs. It is vitally important that dog owners properly secure their pets at all times. This includes:

  • Ensuring fences, doors, and kennel are properly closed.
  • Keeping their dog on a leash at all times.
  • Being careful to keep small children and vulnerable adults safe around dogs.
  • Keeping aggressive dogs away from other people and pets.