Pet Owner Liabilities

dog-bitesAll too often people are drawn in by the cuteness of puppies and undertake the responsibilities of pet ownership without giving adequate thought to what that actually involves. This can be especially true around the holidays. And while that little ball of fluff initially may be met squeals of delight, pet ownership is a lifetime commitment that carries both responsibilities and liabilities.

Generally speaking, people do not set out to buy or adopt vicious dogs, but all dogs have the potential to bite under the right circumstances. There are roughly four-and-a-half million dog bites reported each year in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control, which added that one in every five of those dog bites are serious enough to require medical attention. About 65% of the victims who require emergency medical attention are between the ages of five and nine.(1) The individual responsible for injuries suffered from a dog bite depends in part on where the dog lives and the circumstances surrounding the attack.

New Jersey, like many other states, operates under a strict liability statute concerning dog bites, meaning the dog’s owner is liable for those injuries regardless of whether or not the owner took adequate measures to restrain the dog or warn or protect others of a potential danger. This “strict liability” statute applies only to injuries from dog bites. If a dog were to run into the street causing a person to fall or crash their car, the statute would not apply. The injured person seeking to recover damages would have to file a claim of negligence instead.(2)

When a person is injured by a dog bite in New Jersey, he or she has two years from the date of the attack to file a lawsuit. In order for a victim to seek damages, he or she does not need to prove negligence or carelessness on the part of the dog owner. Victims only need to show that they were bitten; that the person they are seeking damages from is, in fact, the owner of the dog; and that the attack took place while the victim was on public property or lawfully on private property, meaning they were on private property by invitation or in the course of carrying out official duties as allowed by law, such as delivering mail or reading utility meters.(2)

Some states with strict liability statutes allow a provocation defense which releases the dog owner of liability if it is proven that the victim provoked the dog through abuse or teasing.  New Jersey, however, does not have such a defense. Essentially, the only defense against liability for dog bite injuries is if the dog owner can prove the victim was illegally trespassing on the dog owner’s private property.(2)

Even in strict liability states, it does not mean that dog owners are the only ones that can be held liable for injuries from dog bites. An article on the National Trial Lawyers website last month relayed the story of a New York case in which a jury found the municipality of Hamburg, NY to be negligent and, therefore, liable for injuries of an 82-year-old woman when she was attacked by her neighbor’s dog in her own yard. The jury awarded the women $150,000 for her injuries, which included a severe fracture of her wrist that required two pins and three days of treatment on an in-patient basis.(3)

According to that lawsuit, there had been a total of eight complaints filed against the dog in question by the victim and another neighbor. The victim claimed that she had been visited on several occasions by town wardens who assured her of her safety. As a result of those assurances by town personnel, the town assumed a duty to protect the victim, the lawsuit asserted. Usually municipalities as well as state and federal governments are immune from such suits; however, they can be held liable under a ‘special duty’ rule as long as a relationship between employees of the government entity and the victim can be established. Such a relationship can be established if, among other things, the government entity assumes a duty to act on behalf of an injured person through promises made or actions taken, or if the injured is justified in relying on the entity to take affirmative action. The special duty rule can also be applied if a municipality fails to enforce the animal control provisions for which it is responsible.(3)

In some states, including New Jersey, landlords can be held liable for injuries that were caused by a tenant’s dog. In order for that to happen, the victim would need to prove that the landlord had knowledge that the dog was dangerous and had the legal power to force the tenant to either get rid of the dog or move off the property. Even in these instances, however, the dog owner is not off the hook. Usually the dog owner is liable for compensatory damages for medical expenses related to the injuries suffered. Landlords who have been found liable, on the other hand, can be ordered to pay punitive or “extra” damages.(4)