By Danielle D. Mittskus

So you think a dog is man’s best friend?? According to the American Humane Association, an estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur in the U.S. each year. That is a lot of biting! What does this mean for you? Whether you’re a dog owner or not, being aware of the implications of a dog bite is important.

A common misconception among dog owners is that every dog gets “one free bite,” meaning the owners cannot be held liable the first time their dog bites someone else, because, goodness gracious, they “had no idea that little Sparky could be so ferocious.” How were they supposed to know Sparky hates mailmen?!

Not true. Under California law, a dog owner is liable for damages suffered by anyone who is bitten by the dog, regardless of whether Sparky previously demonstrated his true anti-social tendencies. Even a less-than-gentle nibble is enough; no puncture or tearing of the skin is required to make it a “bite.”

Now of course there are limitations; if Butch, your brave boxer, chews up someone who’s just broken into your home, more power to him. However, if the victim is in a public place or lawfully in a private place – which includes postmen, FedEx or UPS delivery drivers, and guests invited into your home or on your property—tell Butch to keep his teeth to himself!

Once your pooch has taken a chunk out of your poor, unsuspecting guest, you have a duty to take whatever steps necessary to protect others from the same fate. Put a leash on Fido, put him in a crate when you’re not around to watch him, fence in your yard – whatever it takes. Because if a dog bites on two or more separate occasions, the district attorney or city attorney has the right to bring an action against the owner. The court may then do whatever it deems appropriate to prevent another bite, including removing the animal from the area, or… well… let’s just say Fido can be forced to take a long, permanent nap.

And let’s make no mistake about it – this rule applies to small and big dogs alike. A feisty Chihuahua can potentially cause a lot of damage, or so I’ve heard.

As for your liability, even if your mutt is now muzzled, you could well be responsible for paying the victim’s medical expenses, past and future pain and suffering, past and future lost wages, and even compensation for any scarring that the bite may cause. Fortunately for both owners and victims, many homeowners and rental insurance policies provide coverage for these damages. (But check your policy. “Aggressive” breeds like pit bulls or Rottweilers may be excluded.)

Now, what about those of you who have had the unfortunate experience of being on the receiving end of Fido’s lousy temper? Well, after detaching his teeth from your tender flesh:

● Go to the doctor, quickly! You may need a rabies shot if the dog wasn’t vaccinated. Follow all instructions that you are given regarding treatment of the injury. It’s also a good idea to keep track of all medical paperwork, including bills and doctors’ instructions.

● Obtain the name and address of the dog owner, as well as those of any witnesses. Take photographs of your wound, torn clothing (which you may also want to preserve), or any other evidence that shows the extent of your injuries.

● Report the incident to your local animal control authorities. This ensures that the attack is documented. They may also be able to inform you of any other attacks by the same dog. If Fido has a rap sheet as long as his tail, it strengthens your claim for damages.

● Last, but definitely not least, consult with an attorney about filing a claim against the owner. Dog bites are handled on a contingency basis – if the pooch prevails, you don’t pay. Chances are the attorney can settle the matter before a suit is even filed. And even if your case does go to trial, don’t worry. You can be pretty sure you’ll make a better witness than that Ferocious Fido.

Driskell & Gordon in Glendora is a civil firm handling personal injury, products liability, business law, real estate law, contract, probate, conservatorships, trusts, and wills. Reach us at (626) 914-7809, or

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