Recently, dog bites made the news again after a pit bull bit a young child in the face in Coachella. [See the news story here: http://bit.ly/1pOzOI0] The boy was treated for non-life threatening injuries, and the dog in question in the above story was "relinquished...to be humanely euthanized." At this point we don't know if the dog had a history of violent behavior, or if this was a one-time occurrence. But, it does bring up some interesting questions about liability.
In California, under Civil Code section 3342, the owner of a dog is strictly liable for the damages suffered by someone bit by the dog while in a public place, or lawfully in a private place. This includes instances where a dog owner invites people over to his/her home and then the dog attacks or bites an invited guest. Trespassers are not afforded the same protections. The prior viciousness or bad acts of the dog are not considered. That means that even if the dog in question is typically docile and has only bitten on one occasion the owner could be held liable for any damage caused by the dog. A dog bite, for purposes of this section, is defined as when the skin is broken by the dog, nothing less will constitute a bite. In the case mentioned above, even if that dog had never bitten anyone else, the owner would be liable for the child's medical expenses. Thankfully the boy was not too seriously injured, as dog bites can be devastating, and even deadly.
Of course, that is not the only law on the books that pertains to dog bites. Under California Civil Code section 3342.5, the owner of a dog who has bitten someone once has to take steps to ensure it doesn't happen again. After a dog has bitten on two occasions, an action may be brought against the owner of the dog to determine whether conditions have changed enough to ensure the dog shouldn't bite again. At this point, the dog can be removed from the home and euthanized. Dogs that have been trained to fight or attack only need to bite once to have the same actions brought against their owners.
The California Food and Agriculture Code includes even more regulations on dogs which don't deal with liability, but with public safety. Dogs that are "potentially dangerous" and "vicious" as defined by sections 31602 and 31603 must be licensed as such. Potentially dangerous dog must be indoors or securely behind a fence while at home, and must be on a leash at all times when away from the home. Vicious dogs can be euthanized for being so. If not euthanized, the judicial authority can place restrictions on those dogs as well.
But fear not dog owners, protections are afforded to animals as well. If a person injures an animal, whether willfully or by gross negligence and in disregard of humanity, then that person can be held liable for "exemplary" damages. Exemplary damages are those which are intended to be a warning and to deter like actions.
Animal law can be messy too. Pet owners can act like protective parents when told that their dog has harmed someone. They may react with complete denial. It is important to know your rights when confronted with a situation like this.