Ask the Lawyer: Is there any defense if your dog bites someone who enters your yard?
Q: Our terrier, Jessie, bit the neighbor’s hand, but he (the neighbor) climbed over the wall to get into our yard – without our knowledge or permission – supposedly to help Jessie during the rains. The next day our neighbor went to a doctor. Are we financially responsible? If so, for what?
A: Some states have a rule that the dog has to have shown prior propensity for violence before the owner is held liable for a dog bite. California, however, enforces strict liability with regard to dog bites; the rationale being it is a dangerous, violent act by an animal that can cause very serious injury.
Damages include pain and suffering, medical bills, and related out of pocket (including lost wages if the person is rendered unable to work for a period of time). But, you can raise the defense of trespassing. Under California law, the injured person ether has to be in a public place, or lawfully in a private location, to recover for a dog bite. You describe what reads like a trespass, which might shield you from liability.
Q: Do we have to report an incident where our dog bit someone helping to move our furniture? We think it was his fault. Out dog was on a leash and this gentleman walked right into our dog’s space.
A: The victim and the dog owner are legally responsible to report the incident to the local health officer. The county agency can then investigate to evaluate (among other issues) any concern of rabies transmission, and whether the dog is prone to this kind of unacceptable behavior which may result in further action.
Q: Our dog barked at a little girl – she was at a distance but it scared her, she began crying, and her father chewed us out. Is this something for which we could actually be held liable?
-K.M., Hermosa Beach
A: A barking dog can create a nuisance, and thus a potential claim against the owner. If the noise is just too much and incessant, the barking may also violate a local ordinance. That said, one incident only of the dog barking, and frightening a child, would be challenging to pursue. It does not appear the dog lunged at her, or bared its teeth.
You probably do not face liability, but you may have to further train your dog (or take other action, like a bark collar) to minimize the risk of an incident and potential liability. If you are deemed negligent, and the dog causes harm to someone – such as by pushing him or her over – there is risk of a valid claim.
Ron Sokol is a Manhattan Beach attorney with more than 35 years of experience. His column, which appears on in print on Wednesdays, presents a summary of the law and should not be construed as legal advice. Email questions and comments to him at RonSEsq@aol.com