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Are California dog owners criminally liable if their dogs attack?

Even though California has many laws - and several court opinions - that say owners of dangerous dogs may be criminally liable if their dogs attack or bite others, the truth of the matter is that dog owners rarely face criminal charges.

In fact, unless a dog severely injures, mauls or kills an individual, it is unlikely the owner will ever be charged. For example, under California Penal Code section 399.5, a dog owner may face either a felony or a misdemeanor if:

  • The person owns a dog that is trained to attack, fight or kill
  • The person knows of the dog's dangerous nature
  • The person fails to exercise ordinary care, which results in the dog biting or attacking someone
  • The dog causes a substantial injury during a single bite/attack or, alternatively, bites someone on two separate occasions

Similarly, California courts have held, in rare circumstances, that a dog owner may be guilty murder if his or her dog kills another person. For instance, in People v. Noel, a California appeals court affirmed the conviction of a California woman who was found guilty of second-degree murder after her dogs mauled a neighbor to death.

However, despite the above-mentioned statute and caselaw - in addition to several other California laws - it is uncommon for dog owners to face criminal charges following a dog bite or attack.

Do dog bite victims have other forms of recourse?

Fortunately, however, dog bite victims in California have other legal options available besides simply waiting to see if the government will eventually file charges against a dog owner.

Specifically, victims can file their own claim in civil court seeking damages for any injuries caused during the dog attack. This can be done using California's dog-bite statute, which states dog owners are strictly liable for any dog bite injuries. However, every situation is different, which is why it is always best to speak to an experienced attorney.

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