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Dog Bite Vs Dog Scratch Personal Injury

What are the Legal Differences Between a Dog Bite and a Dog Scratch?

In most instances, dog owners are liable for any personal injury or property damage their pets cause. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that over 4.7 million people get bitten by dogs each year, thus resulting in nearly 800,000 injuries that need to be checked out by a doctor.

Over 50 percent of dog bites take place on the dog owner’s premises. California is ranked as one of the top states with the most dog bite claims in 2018. The average cost for each claim was $45,543. Furthermore, about one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims come from dog bites. According to StateFarm, in 2017, the company compensated $132 million to 3,600 dog bite injury claims.

When it comes to dog bites, it’s important to know that California is a strict liability state. This means that as long as a dog bite occurred in a public place or lawfully on private property — including the dog owner’s property — the dog owner will be held liable for any injuries. Dog bites may cause serious injuries that will require medical attention. Even in minor cases, dog bites and scratches can result in complications given that it is carrying diseases.

According to California Civil Code Section 3342, a dog owner will be held liable for damages when:

  • A victim’s injuries were caused by a dog bite
  • A victim was bitten in a public place or while lawfully on private property

However, this statute does not apply to any victims who suffered a dog bite while a dog was engaged in police or military work. Also, it is necessary for an injury to be caused by a dog bite, and not by another behavior on the dog’s part.

In cases where the injury was not caused by an actual bite, the standard California negligence rules will be implemented instead. This means that a victim who was not bitten must prove that the dog owner’s negligence was the primary cause of any injuries sustained from the attack.

Determining the level of severity of a dog bite or scratch is important to know in order to figure out whether the defendant is responsible for any losses or damages caused by the attack.

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Dog Bite

Even the most gentle, tiniest dog, no matter the breed, can bite if scared, overexcited, or injured. In the United States, injuries from a dog bite account for 85 to 90 percent of animal bites, and 1 percent of visits to the emergency room. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, infection may occur in 10 to 15 percent of dog bites. It is more common for cat bites to carry a higher risk of infection than dog bites. Dog bites that do not break your skin are usually not infected.

There are several levels to determine how serious a bite can be, and these are:

  • Pre-bite (level 1). The dog air snaps or bites, but does not make any contact with the individual. The dog owner should take the dog’s aggression as a sign to help prevent its behavior from progressing into an actual bite.
  • Near-bite (level 2). The dog snaps and makes contact on the individual’s skin with its teeth, however, there is no puncture. As stated before, the owner should take this as a sign that the dog must be moved far away from the individual it is trying to intimidate.
  • Level 3A. The dog bites once and penetrates the skin. The wound is as shallow as the length of the dog’s tooth. Even though this is not too severe, it can still be reported. The victim should get medical treatment to check for any serious infections. Once a dog bites someone at this level, or even higher, it will be identified as a liability.
  • Level 3B. The dog bites several times, thus causing a puncture wound that is shallower than half of its teeth.
  • Level 4. The dog bites once and pierces the skin deeper than the length of its teeth. It also creates slashes in both directions from the wounded area, which could mean that the dog bit and shook its head when attacking the individual. This type of bite is dangerous and could get the dog owner in big trouble.
  • Level 5. The dog bites the individual multiple times and creates deep punctures onto the skin while doing so.
  • Level 6. The dog killed the victim or ate their flesh.

The most commonly reported symptoms of a dog bite infection are pain, swelling, redness, and inflammation on the wounded area.This will require immediate medical attention. Other symptoms include pus or fluid oozing from the wound, tenderness, loss of sensation in areas near the bite, and fever and night sweats.

Dog Scratch

A dog’s nail beds are typically very filthy and can be filled with bacteria. This is primarily because they walk on four feet and dig into various surfaces. That’s why if a dog scratches a person, they have a high possibility of infecting them through the broken skin.

Dog scratches may seem harmless to some, however, if the skin is broken, it can lead to serious infections. Puncture wounds actually carry the highest risk of severe infection. The aggrieved individual should treat the scratch by applying pressure to the wound, washing the wound with soap and water, using antibiotic ointment, and covering the injured area with a bandage. The victim should monitor their wound for 72 hours. In case of infection, such as increased heat, redness, swelling, pain, or red streaking on the skin, the victim should reach out to a medical expert as soon as possible.

Similar to bites, dog scratches or scrapes have little to no risk of infection. However, cuts or lacerations have a high risk of spreading infection. If a scratch happens near mucous membranes (eyes or mouth), these can be more critical. Other concerning spots are deep scratches near joints. Wounds that are extremely deep are more prone to infection. Babies, the elderly, and people with decreased immune systems are more likely to develop infections.


California being a strict liability state means that a dog owner cannot escape liability for a dog bite even if they had no idea that their dog would behave aggressively. This, however, doesn’t apply to dog scratches. According to strict liability, a dog owner will be held responsible for any damages resulting from a dog bite, whether the dog had previously bitten someone or not.

If you suffered a dog bite, you only need to prove the bite occurred when you were in a public place or while lawfully on someone’s private property. In such instances, there is no requirement for an aggrieved individual to show the dog owner was negligent or didn’t take reasonable care.

Available Damages

Dog bite victims in California are typically entitled to compensation for their losses. Compensatory damages may include:

  • Emotional Distress
  • Lost Wages
  • Property Loss
  • Medical Bills
  • Physical/Vocational Therapy
  • Psychological Counseling
  • Lost Earning Capacity
  • Pain and Suffering

Further, the surviving family members of anyone who was killed by a dog may be entitled to damages on the decedent’s behalf. Such a claim would be filed as a wrongful death case and would possibly entitle survivors to additional damages.

Though rarely awarded, an aggrieved individual may be able to recover punitive damages in certain cases. Punitive damages are intended to punish a defendant who has engaged in particularly egregious behavior. In order for a dog bite victim to recover punitive damages, they must prove with clear and convincing evidence that the dog owner’s actions were fraudulent or malicious in nature.

California’s statute of limitations on a personal injury — which includes a dog bite accident — case is two years. This means that an injured dog bite victim has two years starting from the initial date of the incident to preserve their rights and file a claim in court.

West Coast Trial Lawyers Is Here to Help

If you have sustained injuries as a result of a dog bite, you have the right to hold the guilty party responsible. A dog bite attorney at West Coast Trial Lawyers can help you recover financial compensation for the losses you have suffered, including medical bills, property damage, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

Call us today at (213) 927-3700 or email [email protected] to schedule a free consultation with our experienced, caring, and compassionate legal team.


If you have been injured in an accident, you can count on the legal team at West Coast Trial Lawyers to fight for your rights every step of the way. Contact us today to schedule your free case evaluation with a personal injury attorney.
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