Dog bites, particularly when suffered by children, can produce life-shattering injuries. Dog bites rarely cause rabies, but they can lead to other painful infections and can produce such debilitating diseases as meningitis and endocarditis. In addition, facial scarring and other disfigurements caused by dog bites can lead to years of cosmetic surgery.

Dog bite facts

According to the CDC, about 4.5 million Americans are bitten by a dog each year. About 800,000 of those bites require medical attention. Almost half of those are treated in emergency rooms. Nearly one out of five dog bites become infected.

Children are three times more likely than adults to require medical treatment after a dog bite. Children between the ages of 5 and 9 are more likely than others to suffer from dog bites requiring medical attention. Although some bites occur when children tease dogs or approach strange dogs in a way that the dog perceives as aggressive, about half of all dog bites are classified as unprovoked.

Adults, who are better situated than children to protect themselves, are commonly bitten on the hand or arm. Children, who are usually closer to the dog’s height, are more likely to be bitten on the face or neck.

Pasteurella bacteria are present in about half of all infected dog bites. The bacterial usually cause a painful infection at the location of the bite wound. Individuals who suffer from a weak immune system are at risk of contracting a serious disease after exposure to pasteurella bacteria. Disease symptoms include swollen glands and joints as well as a loss of mobility.

MRSA is a dangerous form of Staph infection that sometimes accompanies dog bites. MRSA infections can affect the skin, lungs. and urinary tract. Some of those infections can be life-threatening.

Tetanus can be caused by deep punctures from dog bites. Young children who have not yet received a tetanus vaccination or booster, and adults who have not kept up on their 10 year boosters, are especially vulnerable to tetanus infections.

California dog bite law

California law provides that 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.” Because it holds the dog owner responsible even if the owner did not behave carelessly, the California dog bite statute is known as a “strict liability” law.

Before state legislatures began to enact strict liability laws for dog bites, many state courts followed the “one bite rule,” commonly expressed as “every dog is entitled to one bite.” Those court decisions adopted the theory that dog owners cannot be regarded as negligent for failing to protect others from dog bites if they have no reason to believe that their dog would bite in the absence of provocation. Strict liability laws impose a duty on dog owners to control their dogs and to prevent them from biting even if they believe that the dog is unlikely to bite someone.

The phrase “lawfully in a private place” means that guests who are invited into a home enjoy the protection of the strict liability law. Trespassers are not protected, although dog bite victims who were not invited into a private place may still be able to recover damages if they can prove that the dog owner was negligent.

Provocation and assumption of risk

Dog owners are generally allowed to assert the defense of provocation. In other words, if the victim’s own negligence or intentional misconduct contributed to the dog bite by provoking the dog, the victim’s compensation might be reduced or denied. Children under the age of 5, however, are presumed to be incapable of acting negligently, so they are typically entitled to recover compensation even if they provoked the dog that bit them.

Provocation generally refers to inflicting pain on a dog that justifies the dog’s reaction in self-defense. California court decisions have concluded that approaching a dog, holding out a hand to pet a dog, or attempting to feed or play with a dog does not constitute provocation.

When a restrained dog is clearly being aggressive (barking, snarling, or baring teeth), a bite victim who approaches the dog (such as reaching through a fence) might be said to have “assumed the risk” of being bitten. When a reasonable person should recognize the likelihood of being bitten and chooses to ignore that risk, a jury is entitled to deny that person any recovery for his or her injuries.

Whether a dog owner should prevail when asserting defenses of provocation or assumption of risk depends on the facts of the case. When those facts are disputed, it is usually the jury’s responsibility to decide whether the dog owner is entitled to prevail. An experienced personal injury lawyer can help dog bite victims overcome those defenses and win the compensation to which they are entitled.