Jun 28

Dog Bite at Work? Don’t Settle for Workers’ Chomp

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If a dog bites you on the job, you’re barking up the wrong tree if you settle for a paltry award of “workers’ chomp.” That’s because you can’t get workers’ comp for pain and suffering. Luckily, California law lets you unleash a vicious civil action against the dog’s owner if: (1) such person isn’t your employer or co-employee; and (2) he either knew or should’ve known that the dog had dangerous propensities towards humans (the common law rule) or his dog simply bit you (the strict liability rule). So here’s a one-byte guide to California’s dog bite laws.

Liability for a Dog Bite Under the Common Law Rule

Under the common law rule, a dog owner, keeper, or handler is liable for a dog bite or other injury only if such person knew or should’ve known that the dog had dangerous propensities towards humans.1 But no breed of dog is inherently dangerous under California law.2 In fact, the law presumes that all dogs are tame, docile, and harmless.3 You can say that the law presumes that a dog is man’s best friend. Thus, the owner, keeper, or handler must be on notice to be liable, whether the dog is a poodle or a pit bull.

Contrary to popular belief, however, a dog doesn’t get “one free bite” before the owner, keeper, or handler is on notice of its dangerous prospensities. In California, he’s on notice if he must chain or muzzle the dog or if he knows that the dog jumps on people or knocks them down.4 Of course, the law doesn’t deem all dog behavior dangerous. Every dog gets to bark at other dogs, chase cars, jump at fences as people walk by, and even bite burglars when nursing.5 Thus, a pit bull owner won’t be liable for a bite if the dog has never laid a paw on anyone.

Strict Liability for a Dog Bite Under the “Dog Bite” Statute

Now wait just a doggone minute! Even if a dog has no dangerous propensities, California’s “dog bite” statute makes an owner (though not a keeper or handler) strictly liable if his dog bites anyone who is in a public place or lawfully on private property.6 Thus, an owner is liable the second his pug bites a house guest, even if the owner couldn’t have known about the dog’s dangerous propensity. The trade-off for the victim is that the “dog bite” statute enables the owner to raise certain affirmative defenses that would be unavailable in a common law action.

But a dog must truly bite the victim for the owner to be liable under the “dog bite” statute. That doesn’t mean the bite must break the skin.7 For example, the owner will be liable if a dog bites a person’s jacket and yanks him off a ladder, causing him to hit the ground and break something.8 But the owner isn’t liable to be victim if the dog claws him, runs him over, or slobbers all over him. For those injuries, the victim can sue under the common law rule, so long as he can prove that the owner was on notice of the dog’s dangerous propensity towards humans.9


  1. Hillman v. Garcia-Ruby, 44 Cal.2d 625, 626 (1955). 

  2. Drake v. Dean, 15 Cal.App.4th 915, 921 (1993). 

  3. Id

  4. Northon v. Schultz, 130 Cal.App.2d 488, 489-490 (1955). 

  5. Nava v. McMillan, 123 Cal.App.3d 262, 267-268 (1981). 

  6. Civ. Code §3342(a). 

  7. Johnson v. McMahon, 68 Cal.App.4th 173 (1998). 

  8. Hicks v. Sullivan, 122 Cal.App. 634, 639 (1932). 

  9. Id. at 639-640. 

Ben Rothman, Esq.

Ben Rothman is a Los Angeles-based attorney practicing in the areas of personal injury, employment, and workers' compensation on a "no recovery, no fee" basis. Call him at (424) 465-2948 for a free, no-obligation consultation.