Dog bites and other canine-related injuries can be very serious, especially when they involve young children. According to California’s dog bite statute, a dog owner is responsible for the injuries his pet causes, even if the dog showed no prior signs of aggression. Occasionally, when the owner of a knowingly dangerous dog shows no regard for the safety of others, punitive damages are in order.

California Dog Bite Law

Some states are known as “one bite” states, meaning an owner is not liable for injuries caused by his dog unless he knew the dog had bitten someone before. California is known as a “strict liability” state, meaning pet owners are liable for their dogs’ bad behavior, even if the dog has never been aggressive before that day.

California Civil Code §3342 is known as California’s “dog bite law.” The statute declares an owner liable for any injuries caused by his dog’s bite (as long as the victim was not trespassing). Dogs that are not included in the statute are dogs that are “on the job” in law enforcement and military, dogs that bite after being provoked (by someone over the age of 5), and dogs that did not bite but caused other injuries. Even if the circumstances of your case are not covered by the dog bite statute, you may still be entitled to compensation under the state’s negligence laws.

Types of Damages in a California Dog Bite Case

Damages in a personal injury case can be classified as compensatory or punitive. As the name suggests, compensatory damages are intended to compensate the victim for monetary losses and pain and suffering. Compensatory damages are further divided into two categories:

  • Special damages (also called economic damages) represents the amount of money the injury has cost the defendant. Special damages typically consist of outstanding and expected medical costs, lost wages for recovery time off work, reduced earning capacity due to disability, and/or any other monetary expenses or losses incurred from the injury.
  • General damages (also known as non-economic damages) are losses or hardships that are not related to money. The general damages for a dog bite victim may be pain and suffering and mental anguish. Because there is no concrete dollar figure attached to general damages, they are typically determined using the multiplier method. The total amount of special damages is multiplied by a number between 1.5 and 5, depending on the circumstances. A case involving a relatively minor injury with a quick recovery time might use a multiplier of 1.5, while a truly devastating dog attack that ends with a child on life support would be more likely to use a multiplier of 4 or 5.

Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant for grossly negligent or morally repugnant behavior, as well as to deter the defendant and others from making similar bad choices in the future. Due to pressure from business interests and stories of runaway juries handing down huge windfalls to plaintiffs, many states have placed limitations on the amount of punitive damages that can be collected in a personal injury case.

Punitive Damages for Dog Bite Lawsuits in California

California allows a dog bite victim to recover punitive damages under certain circumstances. State law will permit punitive damages in a personal injury case if the plaintiff can demonstrate the defendant acted with oppression, fraud, or malice. For dog bite victims, punitive damages may be awarded if the owner orders the dog to attack, or if the dog has been repeatedly aggressive and the owner shows no interest in preventing an attack. Homeowners insurance will not cover punitive damages stemming from a dog bite lawsuit.

Although California does not have a specific cap on punitive damages, there are safeguards in place to prevent punitive damage awards that far exceed the harm experienced by the plaintiff. The plaintiff must have “clear and convincing evidence” of wrongful behavior, and any punitive damages awarded must bear a “reasonable relationship” to the other damages in the case. This is often accomplished by using a ratio, typically less than 10:1. For example, if the plaintiff incurs $10,000 in actual damages, he should not expect punitive damages in excess of $100,000. The financial means of the defendant are considered when awarding punitive damages. California homeowners that become involved in dog bite lawsuits typically do not have the “deep pockets” to pay off a huge judgment.

For More Information, Contact a Local Dog Bite Attorney

To find out what your dog bite claim may be worth, reach out to a personal injury attorney in your area. Most personal injury lawyers offer a free initial consultation to those who have been injured in a dog attack.