PALO CEDRO, Calif. – A recent incident that occurred in this small rural bedroom community in Northern California reminds us of the potential dangers that arise when children and domestic animals mix. As reported by the Redding Record Searchlight this morning, an 8-year-old child was seriously injured when attacked and bitten on the head by a donkey. The article did not report who owned or kept the animal, nor the child’s relationship to it. The incident does prompt the question, however: What is the law when a child is bitten by a domestic animal?
California has a dog bite statute that imposes strict liability on the owner or keeper of a dog that injures someone with a bite. Liability is imposed even if the dog had no prior history of biting. There is no "first bite is free" leeway in this state.
With respect to other domestic animals such as horses, donkeys, cattle, etc. the law is different. In these cases liability attaches to the owner or keeper of the animal only if the animal had an unusually dangerous nature or vicious propensity. These are dangerous "habits" or tendencies that the keeper was either aware of, or should have been aware of, that make the animal potentially dangerous to humans. Once an owner or keeper becomes aware of, or should be aware of, such a dangerous potential, it does not matter how carefully they guard or restrain the animal. If the animal injures someone out of that dangerous propensity, the owner or keeper is strictly liable.
"Biting" is a common "bad habit" of horses and donkeys. These bites can be very severe and painful, and can expose one to dangerous infections. Children not accustomed to an animal or its habits should not be left alone to "play" with or around it. Even children familiar with the animal should be regularly reminded of any propensities. Remember, as the owner, if the animal has a dangerous habit or tendency, you will be held liable for the injury caused thereby, and will not be excused by the fact that you warned someone, or otherwise acted carefully.