Section 3342 is important because it creates what is known as "strict liability". Dog owners are liable for their dog's actions even for first time bites. It does not matter that the dog was the "sweetest little thing" before the incident. It does not matter if the dog was restrained or not, or if the dog was on or off its owner's property. For example, a plaintiff was wrapping a dog found lying in the road that had apparently been hit by a car when the dog bit her. The court found that the dog owners owed a duty to the plaintiff because the dog bit her in a public place. (Davis v. Gaschler (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 1392.) If the dog bites, the owner is automatically liable. As noted later, the owner may still have defenses to reduce their liability. Also, there is immunity in certain situations for military and police dogs.
Section 3342 only creates liability for dog owners. If a person is keeping the dog, but does not own it, they have no liability under this section. That does not mean, however, that they can entirely escape responsibility. If the keeper or holder of a dog knows that the dog has dangerous propensities, or if they are otherwise negligent in whatever circumstance led up to the bite, then they can be held liable. Keepers, however, do not have strict liability like dog owners do. (Radoff v. Hunter (1958) 158 Cal.App.2d 770.)
Section 3342 only applies to injured victims lawfully on a person's property. One person is lawfully on another person's property if they are there by invitation of the owner, whether express or implied. If they are trespassing the statute does not apply and the owner has no liability under the statute. As with keepers, it would still be possible for an owner to be liable for negligence, but they would not have strict liability.
This rule can have some unexpected consequences. There have been cases where a young child was properly on someone's property but told to stay out of the backyard. The child opens the back gate and is bitten by the dog. The child is considered a trespasser (despite their age) and the owner thus has no liability under the statute. (Bauman v. Beaujean (1966) 244 Cal.App.2d 384 (3 year old girl in a backyard a trespasser).)
In some instances a landlord can be responsible for dogs owned by their tenants. If the landlord knows of the dog, and also knows that it has dangerous propensities, then the landlord can be liable.
In Portillo v. Aiassa (1994) 27 Cal.App.4th 1128, the court stated that: "We hold that a landlord has a duty to exercise reasonable care in the inspection of his commercial property and to remove a dangerous condition, which includes a dog, from the premises, if he knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care would have known, the dog was dangerous and usually present on the premises." In that case, the plaintiff was bitten in a liquor store by a dog owned by the tenant who was operating the business. The court noted that it is reasonably foreseeable that guard dogs in commercial establishments open to the public will injure someone. The court also held that the landlord could not avoid liability by failing to inspect the premises and thereby claim that he had no knowledge of the dog.
In a residential landlord case, the court noted that a different duty of inspection may apply, but that a landlord could still be liable: "a duty of care may not be imposed on a landlord without proof that he knew of the dog and its dangerous propensities. Because the harboring of pets is such an important part of our way of life and because the exclusive possession of rented premises normally is vested in the tenant, we believe that actual knowledge and not mere constructive knowledge is required. fn. 4 For this reason we hold that a landlord is under no duty to inspect the premises for the purpose of discovering the existence of a tenant's dangerous animal; only when the landlord has actual knowledge of the animal, coupled with the right to have it removed from the premises, does a duty of care arise." (Uccello v. Laudenslayer (1975) 44 Cal.App.3d 504.)
If the landlord fails to control their property they can also be held liable for bites committed by the dog off their property. In Donchin v. Guerrero (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 1832, a tenant's dogs attacked plaintiff four blocks away from where the dogs lived. The plaintiff sued the dog's owner and the owner's residential landlord. The court held that the landlord could be liable, explaining the law as follows: "If the dog is taken on a leash by its owner, off the premises, prevention of an attack by the dog may be beyond the landlord's control. But if the dog escapes the landlord's property because of defects in that property, the landlord is liable for the off-site injuries." This could include a duty to ensure that appropriate fencing prevented dogs from roaming the neighborhood.
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