In California, the owner of the dog is generally liable for any injury that their dog causes, especially if the victim was in a public place or lawfully on private property. This is known as “strict liability,” which means the owner is responsible even if the dog has no prior history of aggression. If you own a dangerous and aggressive dog, it’s even more important to ensure that they’re properly controlled and supervised.

Is a Pet Owner Responsible for Damage and Injuries Done by Their Pets?

Absolutely. Under the legal doctrine of “strict liability,” pet owners, especially dog owners in California, are often held responsible for the actions of their pets. Let’s break this down:

Strict Liability in California

In many jurisdictions, dog bite laws operate under a “one-bite rule.” This rule means that a dog owner might not be held liable for the dog’s first attack if they had no reason to believe the dog was dangerous. However, California does not follow this rule.

Instead, California has adopted a strict liability approach for dog bites. Under dog bite laws in California, a dog owner is liable for injuries caused by their dog, regardless of whether they had prior knowledge of the dog’s aggressive tendencies or not. The mere fact that the dog bit someone (under lawful circumstances, like the victim wasn’t trespassing) is enough to establish liability.

How Does This Differ from Negligence?

While strict liability automatically assigns responsibility to the dog owner for a bite, negligence requires a showing that the dog owner failed to exercise reasonable care. In states without strict liability, the victim might need to prove that the owner was negligent in some way, such as knowing the dog was dangerous but failing to restrain it properly.


Imagine Sarah, a California resident, adopts a dog, Max, from a shelter. Max appears friendly, has no history of aggression, and plays well with others. One day, while on a walk, Max suddenly bites a passerby, John, without any clear provocation.

Under California’s strict liability laws, Sarah is automatically responsible for John’s injuries, even though she had no previous reason to believe Max might bite someone. She cannot defend herself by saying, “Max has never done this before,” or “I had no idea he might bite.” The fact that Max bit John while he was lawfully walking by is enough for Sarah to be held liable.

However, say John was unlawfully on Sarah’s property (e.g., trespassing) or provoked Max in some manner leading to the bite. In that case, those factors could play a role in determining the outcome of any legal proceedings.

How Can Animal Owners Defend Against Liability?

Animal owners can reduce their liability by ensuring that their pets are well-trained, secured, and supervised. Complying with leash laws and ensuring that enclosures are safe and compliant with local regulations can also prevent potential incidents. Having insurance that covers pet-induced damages and injuries is another proactive measure.

Complying with Leash Laws:

To comply with leash laws:

  • Understand Local Regulations: Each city or municipality may have its own specific rules about leashing dogs. Familiarize yourself with local bylaws and regulations.
  • Choose the Right Leash: Use a sturdy, well-made leash appropriate for your dog’s size and strength. Avoid retractable leashes in crowded areas as they can extend a long distance and might not give you full control over your dog.
  • Training: Train your dog to walk calmly on a leash. This prevents sudden lunges or aggressive behavior when confronted with other animals or humans.

Ensuring Safe and Compliant Enclosures

As with leash laws, different localities have different requirements for pet enclosures. Some might necessitate a certain height for fences or certain materials.

Check for escape routes. Regularly inspect your enclosure to ensure there are no holes or gaps your pet might use to escape. Consider burying the base of your fence a few inches deep to prevent pets from digging under it.

The enclosure should also protect the pet from weather extremes, potential predators, and other dangers. Also, provide ample space for the pet to move around.

Insurance for Pet-Induced Damages and Injuries

Many homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies offer pet liability coverage as part of their standard package. Check your policy to see if dog bites or other pet-related damages are covered. If not, consider purchasing additional pet liability insurance.

If your dog is of a breed considered “high-risk” or has a history of aggression, some insurers might exclude them from standard coverage. In such cases, look for specialized insurers who offer policies for these breeds.

Make sure you understand what’s covered under your policy, the limits of coverage, and any potential deductibles. Also, know the process of filing a claim in case an incident occurs.
As your pet ages or as circumstances change, review and update your insurance policy accordingly. For instance, if you adopt another dog or your current dog undergoes training that might change its risk profile, notify your insurer.

You can ensure you’re taking a proactive approach to prevent potential incidents and protect yourself from liability by:

  • Staying informed;
  • Regular checking and updating enclosures;
  • Training your pet;
  • Having the right insurance coverage.

When Can Someone File a Dog Bite Lawsuit?

A victim of a dog bite can file a lawsuit if they have suffered an injury due to a dog bite or attack. This can be done with the help of a personal injury lawyer who handles dog bite cases, particularly if the incident happened in California.

What Sort of Enclosure Is Recommended in California to Keep a Dog?

In California, if you own a dog known to be dangerous or aggressive, you must ensure that your enclosure prevents the dog from escaping and keeps others from accidentally getting in. The enclosure should be secure enough to protect the public and also provide a humane living condition for the dog.

When May a Dog Be Seized or Impounded by the Police?

A dog may be seized or impounded by the police in California if it is found roaming without a leash, especially if it’s known to be aggressive. Dogs that have been involved in attacks or shown dangerous tendencies may also be subject to impoundment.

What Defenses Can Be Used for Dog Bites?

Some defenses for dog bite claims include proving that the injured person was trespassing or provoked the dog, or they knowingly took the risk of getting bitten.

If My Dog Remains on My Property, What Happens?

If your dog remains on your property and doesn’t pose a threat to others, it generally reduces the risk of incidents. However, you’re still responsible for ensuring that your dog doesn’t escape and cause harm.

How Can I Exercise My Dog Correctly Without Breaking Leash Laws?

In California, always use a leash when walking your dog in public areas. Consider using a long lead in open spaces, attending dog parks, or creating a secure play area in your backyard.

What Penalties Apply for Breaking Leash Laws?

Leash laws vary by county, but most counties in California require dogs to be on leashes no longer than 6 feet in length. Some counties also prohibit dogs from roaming or running at large on any public or private property without the owner’s or lessor’s permission.

The penalties for violating leash laws also vary by county, but they may include fines, citations, court appearances, or civil liability if the dog causes harm to another person or animal. For example, in Los Angeles County, owners of dogs “at large” may be fined up to $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense, and $500 for the third offense within a 12-month period.

Additionally, California is a strict liability dog bite state. This means that the owner of a dog that bites someone is responsible for the damages regardless of whether the owner was negligent or not.

What Happens if a Dog on a Leash Injures Someone?

Even if a dog is on a leash, the owner can still be held liable if the dog injures someone. The injured party can seek compensation for medical expenses, pain and suffering, or other damages. However, the exact circumstances surrounding the injury, such as potential provocation or the injured person’s actions, can influence the outcome of any legal proceedings.

Should I Hire a Lawyer?

If your dog has bitten someone or if you’re a victim of a dog bite, it’s wise to consult with a lawyer. A knowledgeable California dog bite lawyer can provide you with guidance and represent your interests. Find the right lawyer for your needs at LegalMatch today.