San Francisco Personal Injury Lawyer on Assigning Legal Responsibility in Dog Bite Cases

In the end, the law is an attempt to enforce some of the same basic concepts that lend truth to the maxim that we learn all the really important lessons in kindergarten. One of these basic concepts is responsibility. It is both a simple concept, asking people to account for the results of their choices, and a complex one, giving rise to protracted lawsuits attempting to assign responsibility after a tragic event. For example, who is responsible when a pet attacks? This debate gives rise to protracted litigation in criminal courts, but a blanket rule on civil liability helps avoid this difficult process. By assigning responsibility to pet owners via a strict liability framework, the civil dog bite law helps our San Francisco dog bite injury law firm get justice for those injured by domestic animals.

Criminal Court Considers Charges in Mauling Death of Toddler Under Grandfather’s Care
Over the weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle delved into a pending case in Contra Costa County and the difficulty of determining whether a pet owner bears criminal responsibility for the animal’s acts. Fifty-five year old Steve Hayashi is currently on trial and facing charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment related to the death of his step-grandson. On July 22, 2010, Hayashi was caring for two year old Jacob Bisbee while his wife slept. He decided to go play tennis, leaving the toddler and his four year old brother unsupervised. Jacob wandered through an unlocked door into a garage area where three of Hayashi’s five pit bulls were located. On a 911 tape recorded some time later, Hayashi’s wife is screaming as she confirms the boy is no longer breathing, having been mauled to death by the animals.

The criminal case against Hayashi is similar to other cases in recent years where there is no evidence suggesting malicious intent on the part of dog owners. However, the criminal court looks beyond that to whether or not the owner did enough to prevent the animal attack. Prosecutors in these cases often look to whether there were prior attacks against humans or other animals and whether there were prior complaints filed with animal control officials. While owners often deny that the pet was aggressive, neighbors and family members may tell a very different story suggesting that prior instances of aggression should have served as a warning. In the case of Jacob Bisbee, the child’s father and Hayashi’s wife had both asked that the pit bulls be removed from the family home and one of the dogs had previously killed a pet Chihuahua.

Dog Bites & Criminal Liability in California
dogteeth.jpg
Criminal prosecutors often have difficulty filing charges in these cases. The judge overseeing Hayashi’s trial previously noted that there was not sufficient evidence for a murder charge because there was little evidence that the animals had previously attacked people. Second-degree murder charges would require proving “implied malice” meaning the defendant intentionally acted with a conscious disregard for human life. In contrast, involuntary manslaughter means a finding that the defendant was responsible for the death but did not have criminal intent. There is no specific law in California dealing with criminal charges for a fatal mauling by a pet dog. When the death involves a family member, prosecutors may choose not to file charges; when they do, the jury verdict can be difficult to predict, perhaps because the jury feels that the guilt and the loss are punishment enough.

Dog Bites & Civil Liability in California
In sharp contrast to the criminal side, there is a specific statute addressing civil dog bite cases. Section 3342 of the California Civil Code provides: “The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place.” With limited exceptions, this is a strict liability rule meaning that the owner is held responsible for the animal’s acts and the plaintiff does not need to show that the owner intended the harm to occur.

The law treats criminal and civil responsibility differently, in large part because criminal courts have the ability to assign jail time and otherwise limit defendants’ liberty. In dog bite cases (as in many other cases), a civil court may hold an owner responsible regardless of whether or not the defendant is found criminally responsible. If you have been injured by a pet dog or had a family member killed in such an attack, please call our Northern California dog bite law firm to discuss your legal rights.

See Related Blog Posts:
Dog Bites Boy, Again: Considering California Dangerous Dog Laws Following Pleasanton Attack

California Strict Liability Law Promotes Owner Accountability in San Francisco Dog Bite Cases

(Photo by Heather Paul)