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Can I Recover Punitive Damages in a California Dog Bite Case?

Dog bite victims in California are often entitled to recover damages from the dog’s owner. In exceptional cases, that can include punitive damages– which are meant to punish egregious behavior and deter others from similar wrongdoing. Therefore, the bar to recover them is set high. However, when punitive damages are warranted, they can significantly increase the compensation available to an injured plaintiff.

If you have questions about whether punitive damages are an option in your case, discuss your situation with a Los Angeles personal injury lawyer at Salamati Law. We are here to help you understand your rights, including whether punitive damages are warranted.

Who is liable for a California dog bite?

The legal system seeks to balance rights between individuals like dog owners and those who come into contact with their dogs. Many states have a “first bite free” rule. It would hold a dog owner legally responsible for a bite only if they knew that the animal had aggressive tendencies. In other words, those states give the benefit of the doubt to dog owners and injured claimants must prove the owner’s liability.

California shifts the balance more in favor of bite victims. Dog owners are strictly liable for the actions of their animals even if they had no reason to suspect aggression. Unless an exception applies, a bite victim may sue a dog owner even if it was the dog’s first bite. If an exception does not apply, the presumption is that the owner is liable.

Some of the exceptions that may prevent the application of the strict liability law include:

  • The victim was a trespasser at the time of the dog bite
  • The victim was over the age of five and provoking the dog
  • The dog was protecting someone who was acting in self-defense
  • The dog was acting appropriately in its role as a military or police dog
  • The dog was the victim’s employer’s dog, and workers’ compensation covered the injury

California holds each party liable for their actions, so even if the victim is entitled to recover damages, they may be reduced in proportion to the victim’s fault. For example, if the dog unexpectedly bit the victim but they had been annoying the animal– the jury might find each party 50% to blame and cut the compensatory damages in half.

Speak with our experienced team of Los Angeles dog bite lawyers to get a better understanding of whether the strict liability statute applies in your case or whether you need to take a different course of action.

When are punitive damages awarded?

Punitive damages are awarded above and beyond compensatory damages—which is money awarded to compensate losses like medical bills and pain and suffering. As noted above, only exceptional cases warrant punitive damages. In dog bite cases, for example, this might mean that the owner directed the dog to bite the victim. Additionally, in some California cities, local ordinances specifically impose a penalty for owners of dangerous dogs who injure someone, creating a type of strict liability.

There are a few essential ways that punitive damages are different from compensatory damages.

  • First, they cannot be discharged in bankruptcy– a liable defendant will still owe the punitive amount even if their other debts are discharged.
  • However, punitive damages are also harder to collect because they are not paid by insurance.
  • Further, they are awarded by a jury so your case must go all the way to trial for these damages to be awarded. Most dog bite cases will end by voluntary settlement, and punitive damages will not be payable.

Contact Us at Salamati Law for a Free Consultation

To get the most out of your case, speak with a seasoned Los Angeles dog bite attorney. We are committed to helping injury victims recover the compensation needed to fully address their injuries. Consultations are free and always confidential.

Resources:

  1. California Legislative Information, California Civil Code §3342, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=CIV&sectionNum=3342.
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