In 2016, singer/songwriter Burt Bacharach asked a friend to dogsit while he and his wife were away in Europe. The friend, who had known the dog since it was a puppy, agreed. One morning, the friend was woken suddenly when the dog began to choke on a plastic toy bone. He successfully dislodged the bone from the dog’s throat and kept him safe.
Shortly after, the man approached the shaken dog to comfort it. At this time, the dog allegedly snapped at the man, severely injuring his forearm and hand. At least one finger was amputated and had to be surgically reattached.
In 2017, the dogsitter filed a personal injury lawsuit against Bacharach and his wife. The lawsuit claimed that the dog’s owners should be held strictly liable for the dog bite injuries he sustained. The owners countered, arguing that the dogsitter assumed the risk of a dog bite when he agreed to watch their pet.
A few weeks ago, shortly before Thanksgiving, the friends privately settled their legal dispute.
In California, a dog’s owner can be held strictly liable for any injuries inflicted by his or her dog. This is true concerning any attacks that occur while the victim is:
Strict liability means that a dog bite victim does not have to prove that the dog’s owner was negligent in any way. Liability exists even if the dog (a) had never been vicious in the past or (b) if the owner had no knowledge of the dog’s vicious behavior.
Yes. A dog’s owner might not be fully responsible for a dog’s actions if a victim provoked a dog to cause the attack. In other words, liability may be challenged if there is evidence to show that the victim abused, was mean to, or teased the dog in any way before the bite occurred.
Provocation doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog’s owner is off the hook for any injuries caused by the dog bite. California utilizes the legal doctrine of comparative fault. This simply means that contributing to your own injuries will not automatically bar you from recovering compensation. However, the damages you will be able to recover can be reduced.
Example: Let’s say that Sam is bitten by a dog and files a personal injury lawsuit against the dog’s owner. It’s discovered that Sam was teasing the dog shortly before the attack. As a result, Sam shares some of the fault for his own injuries. His lawsuit against the dog’s owner is not over. However, the amount of money he’ll be able to recover will be reduced. If Sam is 33 percent at fault his recover will be reduced by 33 percent. So, the dog’s owner would only be liable for 67 percent of Sam’s damages.
The Bacharachs contested the lawsuit and argued that the friend “assumed the risk that [the dog] may bite him” when he agreed to dog sit. Specifically, the owners said that the “risk was inherent in [the friend’s] role as [the dog’s] caretaker.” They argued that this “negated the Bacharach’s duty to protect him from harm.”
A dog owner cannot assert this type of defense in a lawsuit that’s strictly based on strict liability. Strict liability exists regardless of a dog’s vicious nature or the owner’s knowledge of that viciousness. The only exception to strict liability is provocation.
However, since the dog bite occurred on the Bacharach’s private property, the lawsuit filed against them also alleged negligence and premises liability. This argument was asserted to defeat these additional claims. A lawsuit based on negligence or premises liability can, in some instances, be defeated if the injured party knew about and disregarded a risk of danger.
Unless a dog has a demonstrated or known vicious past, it’s unlikely that volunteering to watch that dog is an assumption of risk. In this particular case, the friend had known the Bacharach’s dog since it was just 6 months old. The dog, who was 7 at the time of the alleged attack, had no demonstrated history of viciousness. The friend would have no reason to believe that the dog would attack him or lash out.
An assumption of risk generally requires some proof that a risk exists. The fact that dogs, in general, can be vicious probably isn’t enough for the Bacharach’s argument to be successful.
Have you or someone you love sustained dog bite injuries in Los Angeles? You may have the right to seek compensation from the dog’s owner. Contact our experienced personal injury team at Glotzer & Leib, LLP to learn about your legal rights. We offer a free consultation, so don’t hesitate to call for help today.
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