Liability Standards for Personal Injuries from a Domestic Animal

In our previous blog post, we discussed how California law imposes strict liability on the owner of a wild animal that injures someone, regardless how much effort was in place to restrain the wild animal or prevent it from harming someone (see Attacked by Someone’s Wild Animal? Strict Liability it is…). We have also discussed how California law imposes strict liability on the owner of a dog that bites someone, resulting in personal injury (see Dog Bites and Dog-Related Injuries). But what does California law say when you are injured (bitten, scratched, kicked, etc.) by any other domesticated animal? The answer and analysis depends on the nature of the injury. Was the injury accident caused by an otherwise docile animal with no dangerous propensities? Or was the injury accident caused by an animal that was known to have vicious tendencies? If the inquiry is related to the first question, negligence or, where applicable, negligence per se would be the theories under which the personal injury victim would pursue his/her claim against the owner (see Dog Injuries Under the Negligence Theory: Cases to Know and Dog Bites/Attacks and Other Injuries: Understanding Negligence Per Se). If the injuries resulted from an animal that had pre-existing dangerous tendencies or an otherwise vicious nature, California law again imposes strict liability on the animal’s owner. The court in Priebe vs. Nelson (2006) held that “A common law strict liability cause of action may also be maintained if the owner of a domestic animal that bites or injures another person knew or had reason to know of the animal’s vicious propensities. If [defendant] knew or should have known of his dog’s vicious propensities and failed to inform [plaintiff] of such facts, he could be found to have exposed [plaintiff] to an unknown risk and thereby be held strictly liable at common law for her injuries.” The law imposes strict liability on the owner of a domestic animal with dangerous propensities that injures someone simply because as one who knows or should know that their animal (cat, cow, horse, goat, pig, etc.) has a dangerous nature, and they decide to maintain custody and control of that animal, they are, in essence, insuring the safety of others since they decided not to get rid of the animal. The court in Hillman vs. Garcia(1955) summed this idea up best when it found that “ ‘[t]he gist of the action is not the manner of keeping the vicious animal, but the keeping him at all with knowledge of the vicious propensities. In such instances the owner is an insurer against the acts of the animal, to one who is injured without fault, and the question of the owner’s negligence is not in the case.’ ” There are 5 essential elements that must be proven by the personal injury victim who suffered injuries in a domestic animal related accident. According to California Civil Jury Instruction 462,

“[Name of plaintiff] claims that [name of defendant]’s [insert type of animal] harmed [him/her] and that [name of defendant] is responsible for that harm.

People who own, keep, or control animals with unusually dangerous natures or tendencies can be held responsible for the harm that their animals cause to others, no matter how carefully they guard or restrain their animals.

To establish [his/her] claim, [name of plaintiff] must prove all of the following:

1. That [name of defendant] owned, kept, or controlled a [insert type of animal];

2. That the [insert type of animal] had an unusually dangerous nature or tendency;

3. That before [name of plaintiff] was injured, [name of defendant] knew or should have known that the [insert type of animal] had this nature or tendency;

4. That [name of plaintiff] was harmed; and

5. That the [insert type of animal]’s unusually dangerous nature or tendency was a substantial factor in causing [name of plaintiff]’s harm.”

If you have been harmed because of someone else’s animal, contact our animal attack attorney today for a free consultation.