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Message #763 Dog laws

mp3 #763 Dog Law in California (mp3 file)

"Does your dog bite?" Inspector Clouseau asked as he reached to pet the cuddly canine.

"No," the innkeeper replied.

"Ouch," the bumbling detective yelled, after being bitten. "I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite."

"He's not my dog."

If that scene had taken place in real life, rather than in a Pink Panther movie, Inspector Clouseau would need to find the dog owner if he wanted to sue someone to pay for his injuries.

Under California’s dog-bite statute--similar to laws in many states-- dog owners are held responsible for dog bites, no ifs, ands or buts. The legal doctrine is called "strict liability." It means that the dog owner has to pay, whether or not the owner was negligent or careless.

Even if your Fido has always been a gentle pup and never bitten a soul, you'll be responsible the first time he takes a hunk out of someone's leg. Until 1931, when the law was amended, dogs had their "first bite free," and owners were only held liable for bites if they knew of their dog's biting history.

The law now says that a owner 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."

The rule applies if the person bitten is in a public place or "lawfully in a private place." for example, if you are on someone's property by invitation and the owner's dog bites you, the owner has to pay for your/injury, whether or not he was home.

But if your dog bites an intruder or a trespasser, you will not be liable under this strict-liability statute.

Mailmen are given explicit protection. A postman who is on a person's property to deliver mail or perform his duties, is considered "lawfully upon the private property," and thus may require the dog owner to pay for any bite injuries.

There are some limited exceptions to this otherwise dogged rule of strict liability--one exception is a legal doctrine called "assumption of the risk." In a 1985 state court of appeal case, the court decided that veterinarians and their assistants "assume the risk" that they will be bitten when they accept dogs for treatment and therefore cannot sue dog owners for their injuries.

"Dog bites are an occupational hazard in the veterinary profession," the court said.

"A veterinary assistant who accepts employment for the medical treatment of a dog, aware of the risk that any dog, regardless of its previous nature, might bite while being treated, has assumed this risk as part of his or her occupation."

But if a friend tells you not to pet his dog because he's mean and nasty, but you pet the dog anyway, and then the dog bites you, a court would probably rule that you had not "assumed" any risk and you would still be able to recover damages from the owner.

Another exception was added to California Civil Code Section 3342 in 1989. A government agency using dogs in police or military work cannot be sued if its dogs bite someone while the dogs are defending themselves or assisting in specified activities. However, a mere bystander, who is not a part of the activities which prompted the use of the dogs, may sue the government if its dogs injure the bystander.

A legal guide for dog owners and their neighbors was published in 1988 by NOLO press of Berkeley, California. The book is called Dog Law. Its author is attorney Mary Randolph. It is a well-researched, helpful Guide to many common legal issues and related problems faced by dog owners --- from dog bites and dogs barking in the middle of the night, to improper veterinary care, traveling with dogs on airlines, and planning for the care of your dog after your death. Also covered are dog licensing laws, leash laws, what you can collect in court if your dog is injured or killed by a careless driver, and a summary of health insurance available for dogs. So if you want to bone up and get the straight poop on dog law, this book is for you!

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