Dangers of Dog Bites in California

A growing number of dog attacks are pitting pet owners against parents and other concerned citizens. Dog attacks can be fatal, and dog owners may face serious legal liabilities for their dogs' actions.

The issue made California headlines again in February. In Fontana, four dogs mauled a 5-year-old girl and bit two other children, according to the Press-Enterprise newspaper.

The 5-year-old girl was placed on life support after the attack. She suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung. Her 6-year-old brother required 235 stitches to close the wounds from bites to his legs. The dogs, all pit bulls or mixed-breed pit bulls, were euthanized, and the district attorney's office is considering criminal charges against the dogs' owners.

In nearby Hemet, city staffers are investigating a string of reports about dog attacks on people and other pets. They are considering new vicious dog ordinances. California state law prohibits cities or counties from banning specific dog breeds, but municipalities can require certain breeds to be spayed or neutered. They can also limit the number of dogs on a property.

Instead of banning certain dog breeds, California penalizes the owners of vicious dogs. The state has relatively strict laws regarding dog bites. Unlike some states, California dog owners can be held liable for an attack even without evidence of negligence. Owners also can be liable for attacks even if they can prove the dog had never previously exhibited aggressive behavior.

The California Civil Code establishes strict liability against Dog Owners. California Civil Code Section 3342(a) provides:

"(a) The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness. A person is lawfully upon the private property of such owner within the meaning of this section when he is on such property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this state or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States, or when he is on such property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner..."

Owners may be forced to compensate dog-bite victims for injuries, past and future medical bills, past and future loss of earnings, future plastic surgery, punitive damages and pain and suffering damages . The law also covers injuries caused when people are knocked over by an uncontrolled dog. Moreover, dog walkers and others in control of dogs may also be legally liable.

Regardless of the breed, dog bites can disfigure, disable, spread infections, break bones and even fracture skulls. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, and dog bites kill an estimated 15 to 20 Americans every year - mostly infants and young children. Soon California legislators may decide that more rigorous laws and penalties should be applied to control certain breeds based on their propensity to bite or attack.