If you own a dog, you realize that other California residents do not necessarily love dogs the way you do. Dogs have sharp teeth and strong jaws that give them the capacity to cause serious harm. As a dog lover, you must understand that your dog’s animal instincts often trigger unexpected attacks. Since owners do not always take steps to prevent dogs from attacking, California’s state legislators responded by enacting dangerous dog laws.
Los Angeles and Riverside Counties, and Burbank, Corona, Los Angeles, and other cities within these counties also have dangerous dog laws. With a few procedural exceptions, these laws mirror California Food and Agricultural Dangerous Dog and Vicious Dog laws with a few procedural exceptions.
California Dog Laws
California legislators passed dangerous dog laws and vicious dog laws that force owners’ compliance with reasonable standards.
The California Food and Agricultural codes incorporate specific definitions when outlining potentially dangerous and vicious dogs.
- Potentially dangerous dog §9.31602: 1) Twice within 36 months, a dog’s behavior forces a potential human victim into “defensive action” outside of the dog owner or keeper’s property. 2) An unprovoked dog bites a person and causes an injury. 3) On two separate occasions within 36 months, an unprovoked dog bites a domestic animal, causing injury or death while off its owner or keeper’s premises.
- Vicious dog §9.31603: 1) A dog is vicious when it commits an unprovoked, aggressive attack that kills or severely injures a human being. 2) When the court lists a dog as potentially dangerous and notifies the owner or keeper, but the dog continues its behavior, it receives a vicious designation.
The Judicial Process For Designating Potentially Dangerous Dogs and Vicious Dogs
California courts follow a formal process before labeling a dog as potentially dangerous or vicious.
An enforcement official must prove that a dog warrants this designation.
- An Animal Control or law enforcement officer files a civil petition in the jurisdiction’s Superior Court.
- When possible, a petition provides evidence from a complaining party.
- The court schedules a non-jury hearing within five to ten working days of receiving the complaint.
- They serve the dog’s owner or keeper with a formal notice.
- The court allows affidavits, incident reports, and other testimony into evidence. They sometimes limit the evidence and the discovery time frame.
- The court issues a ruling based on a preponderance of the evidence.
- The court notifies the owner or keeper in writing.
- The owner/keeper must comply with the ruling within 30 to 35 days.
- If an owner/keeper disagrees with the court’s findings, they must appeal within five days of the decision.
Potentially Dangerous Dog Exceptions
The court would not declare a dog potentially dangerous or vicious if a dog bites and injures a person under certain circumstances.
- While trespassing on the owner/keeper’s property.
- When the dog is protecting someone from an unjustified assault or attack.
- While the dog bite victim is committing a crime.
- If the victim “teases, torments, abuses, or assaults the dog.”
When a Potentially Dangerous Dog Presents an Immediate Threat
When an officer believes a dog is an “immediate threat to public safety,” they impound it before the hearing. If the court finds the dog potentially dangerous or vicious, the owner must pay the impoundment costs.
Legal Consequences of a Potentially Dangerous Dog or Vicious Dog Designation
Except under extreme circumstances, owners and keepers get a second chance after the court declares their dog potentially dangerous.
They keep their dogs, but they must comply with specific rules and guidelines.
- The dog must remain properly licensed and vaccinated.
- Its registration lists it as “potentially dangerous.”
- In some counties and municipalities, owners/keepers pay a potentially dangerous dog fee and their regular licensing fee.
The Owner or Keeper Must Protect Others
After a court declares a dog potentially dangerous, the owner must protect the public from harm. They must keep the dog indoors or in a yard with secure fencing preventing children from trespassing. Only a responsible adult may take the dog away from its premises. If they do, they must control it and restrain it with a “substantial leash.”
A dog remains on the potentially dangerous list until 36 months pass without another incident. If an owner/keeper leaves the area, they must notify the animal control department within two days. The court sometimes changes the listing when the owner/keeper demonstrates that the dog has changed due to training or other circumstances.
When a Court Declares a Dog Vicious
Before a court declares a dog vicious, the owner goes through the above court process. If the court declares a dog vicious, it exercises these options.
- If the court finds that releasing the dog would create a significant public threat, it usually orders the dog’s destruction. The animal control department carries out this order.
- If the court does not order the dog destroyed, it imposes mandatory conditions that protect the public.
- The court sometimes prohibits the owner from “..owning, possessing, controlling, or having custody of any dog…” for up to three years.
California’s Dog Bite Problem
Each year, the American Veterinary Medicine Association website analyzes and publishes national dog bite information. They believe that dog owners and non-dog owners should understand that “any dog can bite.” In support of this premise, the AVMA and the Insurance Information Institute publish dog bite information and statistics.
Their most recent online publications include the following facts:
- American families own approximately 85 million dogs.
- Each year, dogs bite 4.5 million people.
- California is one of the top 10 states for dog bites.
- California dog bite victims file more claims than in any other state.
- Nationally, the average paid dog bite claim totaled $49,025.
- Dogs attack children most frequently, and they sustain the most severe injuries.
- Children under age 16 made up 45.9 percent of all dog bite fatalities.
United States Postal Service Dog Bite Statistics
Because dog bites occur so frequently, the United States Postal Service publishes a Dog Attack National Ranking List. The annual lists show the states and cities with the most frequent dog bite problems. With 782 injuries in the most recently reported year, California leads the nation in postal carrier dog bite incidents. Los Angeles carriers reported 54 injuries, placing them at number three on the annual national dog bite ranking list.
Why Do Dogs Bite?
There is no secret as to how and why dogs bite people. They attack when their owners do not restrain or control them. Sometimes, dogs escape from inadequately fenced yards, or the owner simply does not keep them on a leash.
Veterinarians and animal organizations consider different factors. Although dogs usually come across as aggressors, they often see humans in the aggressive role.
Based on a dog’s animal instincts, they sometimes see simple human interactions as a perceived threat.
- Dogs sometimes feel afraid or threatened.
- They believe that they are defending themselves or their territory.
- They are protecting their puppies, toys, or food.
- They are playing with their human companions.
- They attack because they feel stressed or they
Despite annual dog bite education campaigns, there is a disconnect between what dog owners know about aggressive dog behavior and how they respond. Instead of keeping young children away from their dogs, owners sometimes invite them to play with them. Instead of accepting that dogs cause severe injuries, they do not always restrain them or prevent them from running free.
Dogs Cause Serious Injuries
When a dog bites, it is often an instinctive response. The reason does not matter when they injure someone. Some dogs do not bite hard enough to break a person’s skin. Others attack aggressively, using their teeth as a weapon. Their canines tear skin and flesh and cause deep puncture wounds. Some dogs latch onto a person, and they will not let go.
A child’s short stature makes them especially vulnerable as they are on a dog’s level. Often, they attack a child’s face, head, or neck because they are within easy reach. Like a young child, an older adult’s frailty also puts them at risk of serious injury during a dog attack. When a dog attacks aggressively, it easily bites through a frail victim’s skin, muscle, and bone. A single attack often causes lacerations, tissue and nerve damage, permanent scars, and sometimes death.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s zoonotic diseases page explains how dogs sometimes pass infections to unsuspecting humans. Even when a bite causes minimal damage, they sometimes pass along MRSA, Brucellosis, tetanus, parasites, and other diseases.
Liability for a Dog’s Actions
Regardless of whether a court has found a dog dangerous or vicious, in most instances, its owners and keepers become strictly liable for its actions. Under California Civil Code, an owner or keeper has no defense when their dog injures someone in a public place.
This strict liability standard also applies when a dog bites the victim while they are “lawfully in a private place.” This includes attacks in the owner or keeper’s home or yard when the victim is there with express or implied permission. This permissive use standard applies to mail carriers, people involved in military actions, police while chasing a suspect, and others.
Do You Need an Attorney When a Dog Bites You?
When a dog bites you or a loved one, you need a dog bite attorney working for you. As with other serious injuries, attorneys understand the legal and damage issues. They intervene with dog owners and keepers and deal with their liability insurers.
When you consult with a personal injury attorney, you learn about your legal rights and your options for resolving your case. You decide if and when you want to make a claim or file a lawsuit to recover compensation.