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San Diego Dog Bites: The Basics

You're running with Spot along the ocean at Del Mar when he spots a squirrel and bolts, ripping the leash from your hand. An innocent romp turns into your worst nightmare when a growling pit bull with a scar across his eye pounces on little Spot. Your love for your furry friend overcomes your fear and you kick at the pit bull away, saving Spot but not before the angry dog snaps at your arm a couple times. Spot is hurt, you are hurt, and you don't have a clue what to do next. California has laws that protect people who have been injured by dogs, so FindLaw has created this informational guide to a San Diego dog bite case.

First Steps

You should obtain immediate medical assistance if you've sustained an injury. You should also think about calling San Diego Animal Services if the dog remains a danger to the neighborhood. If you've identified the owner of the animal, you should exchange contact information.

California's Dog Bite Statute

In San Diego, every dog does not get one "free" bite. Under California law, dog owners are "strictly" liable when their dog bites someone while in public, or when a person is lawfully in a private place. That is unlike most other personal injury cases where the plaintiff must establish that the defendant was negligent or careless before they can recover compensation.

Although this rule seems straightforward, note some technicalities. This statute only applies when the victim was in a public place or lawfully in a private setting. As a result, trespassers are not protected. It only applies to bites, not other injuries or property damage. This law only applies to the owner of the dog, not a temporary keeper like a dog walker. Finally, the statute does not apply to police or military dogs performing their duties.

What Happens to the Dog?

A San Diego County ordinance provides that the owner of a dog who has bit someone must report this bite to the San Diego Department of the Health as soon as possible. The dog will then be isolated and observed for at least 14 days to ensure it is not infected with rabies.

Furthermore, an individual or the government can bring an action against the animal's owner to determine whether the conditions of the dog's treatment or confinement have been changed since the time of the bites to remove the danger presented by the animal, under the dog bite statute. These actions can only be initiated after the dog has bitten a human on two separate occasions (only once if the dog has been trained to fight, attack, or kill). After a hearing, the court can make any order it deems appropriate to prevent the recurrence of such an incident, including the removal of the animal from the area or euthanizing.


Alternatively, the injured individual can bring a lawsuit under common law doctrine known as the "one bite rule." Under the one bite rule, the keeper of an animal is liable for damages it causes when he is aware of the animal's vicious or dangerous propensities and doesn't exercise reasonable care in handling or containing the dog. In addition to negligence, two key elements of this claim are: (1) prior dangerous behavior by the dog and (2) the defendant's knowledge of this behavior.

Negligence is harder to prove than statutory strict liability, which applies irrespective of the owner's state of mind, intent, or actions. The plaintiff must show that the defendant had knowledge of the dog's vicious propensities, whereas the strict liability statute imposes no such restriction. However, the dog bite statute only applies to the owner of the dog, and only applies to dog bites. If you wish to bring a lawsuit against someone other than the owner, such as a dog walker, or if the dog caused a non-bite injury, the common law doctrine is indispensible.

Negligence Per Se

Individuals are presumed to have acted negligently whenever they violate a law and cause an injury that the law was designed to prevent. This "negligence per se" doctrine (section 669) comes into dog bite cases when someone violates animal control laws. Specifically, San Diego County has a "leash law" that requires the dog to be restrained in public. San Diego owners are also responsible for keeping up with their dog's vaccinations, especially eliminating the risk of rabies.

Time Limit

California Code of Civil Procedure Section 335.1 provides that personal injury lawsuits, including dog bites, must be filed within two years of the incident. When the statutory time has passed, you lose the right to file a lawsuit and any potential recovery.

More Resources

Check out the American Veterinary Medical Association for some quick tips about how to protect yourself from a dog attack. If your dog is lost, search through San Diego Animal Services' lost dog page from. Last, but not least, you can check out more general information on dog bite law and San Diego personal injury lawsuits. If you have questions specific to your own circumstances, you may want to discuss them with a local personal injury attorney.

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