Does a “dog bite” have to break the skin?

 In Blog, Personal Injury

Dog with a branch

Does a “dog bite” have to break the skin?

California’s dog bite statute (CA Civil Code Section 3342) imposes strict liability on a dog’s owner for damages caused when the dog bites someone. Unlike some other states’ “one bite rule,” liability attaches regardless of whether the dog has bitten before. The statute states in part:

  1. (a) The owner of any dog 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. A person is lawfully upon the private property of such owner within the meaning of this section when he is on such property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this state or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States, or when he is on such property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner.

So, the statute imparts liability if you can show:

  • The defendant owned the dog;
  • You were bitten in a public place or while lawfully in a private place (such as being invited onto the dog owner’s property); and
  • You were injured.

It’s important for purposes of the statute that the victim have actually incurred a “bite” from the dog. The statute does not provide for other types of injuries (for instance, if the dog jumped on you). You may still be able to recover for other injuries (you could sue for negligence or violation of a local leash law, for instance), but not under Section 3342.

What if the skin does not break?

A dog’s jaws can be very powerful. Oftentimes, a bite can result in a crush injury to the tissue or even the bone beneath the skin, without actually piercing the skin. In this case, it is still considered a bite for purposes of the statute.

In the 1998 case of Johnson v. McMahan, the plaintiff was working on a ladder on the defendants’ property trying to fix a swamp cooler. The defendants’ dog bit his pants (including some skin but there was no puncture wound). As a result of this, he fell from the ladder and was injured. He took the defendants to court, claiming, among other causes of action, liability under Section 3342.

The court had to determine whether this constituted a “bite” under the statute. It concluded that yes, this did qualify as a bite. The court held that there is no requirement that the skin be broken. In this relatively short opinion, the court noted that while broken skin is a common result of a dog bite, the statute itself does not require it. Additionally, the court resorted to common sense and the dictionary, none of which requires broken skin.

Essentially, for a bite to occur, the dog’s jaws must clamp down such that the victim’s flesh was between the jaws, even if there is no puncture wound or tearing of the skin. This is true even if the bite is through the victim’s clothes.

If you are a dog bite victim and plan to sue under the dog bite statute, your success will depend on how well the facts fit within the terms of the statute. However, even if the statute does not cover your situation, you may still be able to sue the dog owner or caretaker of the dog using other laws or legal premises.

Helix Law Firm can help with your dog bite case

If you have been injured by a dog, you may be entitled to damages for your injuries. At Helix Law Firm, we can help you obtain the compensation you need to move on with your life.

If you’re interested in learning more about how Helix can help, please call us at (619) 567-4447 to schedule a free consultation.

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