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Dog Bite Claims and Landlord Liability: When Can a Landlord Be Held Responsible?

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Dog Bite Claims and Landlord Liability: When Can a Landlord Be Held Responsible?

Dog attacks can lead to severe injury, including disfigurement, nerve damage, and death. None of us want to get the law involved with a dog, but the fact remains that even a good dog can do damage. Dogs who knocked down people they were greeting, meaning no harm, may cause serious fractures. When dogs attack other dogs, pets, or livestock, someone has to be held accountable for the resulting veterinary bills and damages.

In California, who is liable for those damages? And does the answer to that question change if the dog lived on a rental property?

Dog Bite Law in California

California law says:

“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.”

See California Civil Code sec. 3342. Furthermore, if the dog has attacked a person before, the owner must “remove any danger” to others from the dog.

Under this law, the owner has “strict liability”—that is, they are liable to someone that their dog attacked whether or not they were negligent in restraining the dog. They also have strict liability for attacks on livestock named in the Civil Code, which includes poultry and hooved animals such as horses, cows, and pigs.

However, a dog bite situation is often more complicated than this. Going after the owner may not solve everything. If an owner can show that a dog bit because the bitten person provoked them, intentionally or unintentionally, they may not be liable for full compensation. They are also not liable for attacks on trespassers or for the assumed risk of bites, as veterinarians and other animal handlers must accept.

If the dog attacked another dog, cat, or pet, seeking damages will also be more complicated. Despite our emotional ties, a pet is not a “person” as specified in the law. Rather, it is property, so seeking veterinary expenses or compensation for their loss would be a property damage case. For that, you will need to prove that the owner was negligent in restraining the dog—that they had a duty of reasonable care and failed in it, resulting in the dog’s attack.

In any case, an owner may not have insurance coverage or personal resources that would provide any relief for a bite victim. However, it is also possible for a tenant dog owner’s landlord to be liable for a dog attack under California law.

When a Landlord Is Liable for Dog Attacks

According to the California Supreme Court, a landlord can be liable for a dog attack due to negligence if:

  • The landlord had actual knowledge that the dog was dangerous, and
  • They had the right to remove the animal or otherwise remediate the danger, but
  • They did nothing to prevent the foreseeable harm that the dog caused.

One of California’s major dog bite cases is called Uccello v. Laudenslayer. This case involved a German shepherd guard dog whose viciousness was so well known that the neighborhood circulated a petition to have it removed after its third attack. The California Supreme Court ruled that the owner’s landlord was negligent about the danger posed by this dog because he was aware of what it was capable of and had done nothing to prevent its attacks. As such, he could be held liable for the injuries it caused.

When a dangerous condition exists on a rented property, and the landlord is aware of that condition, they have a duty to cure it—that is, protect others from the danger—but only if they have the legal right and ability to do what is necessary. Leases may forbid a landlord from entering rented property or otherwise taking any action.

But a dog known to be vicious is a dangerous condition, and leases usually provide a right for landlords to evict vicious animals or unsatisfactory tenants. Moreover, a landlord can generally erect fencing or otherwise manage their land. Where you can show that a landlord actually knew, or must have known, that a dog residing on their property was dangerous, then it follows that they should have taken reasonable care to address the threat. Therefore, a dog bite victim could seek damages for the landlord’s negligence.

For negligence claims, California is a “pure comparative fault” state. Even if an injured person was negligent in the incident leading to their injury, they are still entitled to some compensation so long as they were not totally at fault. For example, if a court found that a plaintiff was 80% at fault for their injuries, that plaintiff would still be entitled to 20% of their damage claim.

What to Do After an Attack

After a dog attack, go to a doctor as soon as possible—or a vet, if it is your own dog—even if the injury does not seem severe. A superficial bite can still introduce a serious infection that may endanger your limb or even your life.

Dog bite legal claims are highly emotional, and it is wise to have someone to manage the negotiations for you as soon as you can. An experienced dog bite attorney is familiar with the process and its pressures. They know how to determine liability and how to deal with insurance companies and claims.

If a dog has attacked you, your loved one, or your pet in the Los Angeles County area, we want to talk to you. Call us at 818-369-3270 to schedule your free case review in our Encino offices.

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