What is Strict Liability in California?

In most personal injury cases, the defendant has to have acted negligently to be held liable. However, under a few circumstances, the defendant may be found liable for the plaintiff’s injury even if they were not negligent. This concept is called “strict liability.”

Two common areas in which California recognizes strict liability are:

  1. When a dog bites and injures the plaintiff; and
  2. The defendant designs, manufactures, or sells a defective product that injures the plaintiff.

In each case, negligence (or gross negligence or recklessness) is not required by the defendant.

California’s Dog Bite Strict Liability Law

California Civil Code section 3342 contains the strict liability provisions for attacks by dogs. 

The “owner of any dog is liable for damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog” if:

  • The attack occurs in a public place; or
  • The attack occurs while the attacked person is lawfully in a private place, including the dog owner’s property.

The statute explicitly makes a dog owner liable for a dog bite regardless of the dog’s past aggressive behavior or the owner’s knowledge of such aggressiveness. Trespassers are not protected by this law, as they are not lawfully on the dog owner’s property. However, the law makes it clear that postal employees or government employees on official business are lawfully on the dog owner’s private property.

The statute is not intended to be used by persons who are attacked by police or military dogs in the line of duty.

There are some exceptions to this statute, provided by California case law, which do not trigger strict liability for a dog bite. For example, a dog owner may not be strictly liable to workers in a dog kennel who get bitten by their dog at the kennel. Priebe v. Nelson (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1112, 1114. Another example includes when veterinarians, or their assistants, get bitten by a dog being treated at the veterinary clinic. Nelson v. Hall (1985) 165 Cal.App.3d 709, 715.

California’s Product Liability Law

In California, a person who designs, manufactures, or sells a defective product is strictly liable for injuries caused to another person by that product. 

While the specifics vary slightly depending on the exact type of defect, generally, the plaintiff must prove that:

  • The defendant designed, manufactured, distributed, or sold the defective product;
  • The product had a design or manufacturing defect or contained an inadequate warning before leaving the defendant’s possession;
  • The plaintiff used the product for its intended purpose or used it reasonably foreseeable way; 
  • The product’s defect was a substantial factor in the plaintiff’s harm; and
  • The plaintiff suffered an injury.

There are three categories of product defects: design, manufacturing, and inadequate warnings.

Design Defects

A product has a design defect if a consumer uses it for its intended purpose or in a reasonably foreseeable manner, but it fails to perform safely like an ordinary consumer would expect. Alternatively, a product has a design defect if the inherent dangers of its design outweigh the benefits of such a design.

 In performing this benefits analysis, a court may consider the following factors:

  • Gravity of danger of the design
  • Likelihood danger will occur
  • Feasibility of an alternative, safer design
  • Cost of improved design
  • Disadvantages to the user of the alternative design.

For example, assume there is a piece of heavy construction equipment that is regularly used on uneven terrain. However, due to its narrow design, the equipment has a tendency to roll over when used on uneven terrain. Under the first standard above, this may be a design defect.

Manufacturing Defects

A product has a manufacturing defect if it differs from the manufacturer’s design or other typical units of the same product line. In other words, the product is designed properly, but it develops defects due to manufacturing, causing it to deviate from the design.

Assume a company manufactures ladders. It uses premium-strength aluminum instead of normal aluminum for the rungs of the ladder. During the production of one ladder, a worker uses normal aluminum for the rungs instead of the premium-strength version. This is a manufacturing defect.

Inadequate Warnings

A product has an inadequate, or defective, warning if:

  • The product had potential risks that were known or knowable;
  • The potential risks presented a substantial danger when the product is used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner;
  • Ordinary users would not have recognized the potential risks; and
  • The manufacturer failed to adequately warn of the potential risks.

An example of an inadequate warning could be a hand grinder. Assume a worker picks up a hand grinder. It has a small warning label that says, “use with high RPM (rotations per minute) disks only.” The grinding disk is worn, so the worker goes to a shelf with assorted disks – some are rated at 18,000 RPM and some at 24,000 RPM. The worker grabs a disk rated at 18,000 RPM. 

While using the grinder, the disk breaks and a piece of it flies up and pierces the worker’s eye. It turns out that only disks with an RPM rating of 20,000 or higher are safe. It’s possible this could be an inadequate warning – for example, perhaps the warning should have stated, “use with 20,000+ RPM disks only.”

Call Us for Help

If you or someone you know has been bitten and injured by a dog or suffered injuries due to a defective product or warning, an attorney from our Mission Personal Injury Lawyers, P.C. team can help you with your strict liability case. Call us at (619) 777-5555 or contact our San Diego personal injury office today to discuss your case.