Dog Bites and the Law

Posted in Injury Law

Personal injury attorneys typically handle a wide variety of cases, from automotive accidents, to premises liability claims, to product liability cases. While some attorneys limit their practice to a specific area of law or type of claim, almost all attorneys have one or more types of cases which they focus their attention. Stark & Stark has personal injury attorneys in every office who have focused their practice on the victims of dog bites. I am one of the attorneys working in the Princeton, New Jersey office who devotes time to these important claims. This post is the first in a series of blog posts that will discuss dog bite claims. I will focus on New Jersey law, and I hope that one of my fellow attorneys in one of the Pennsylvania offices chimes in to address state-specific issues from the Pennsylvania perspective.

It is a common misconception that dog bites only occur in the summertime. The fact is that dog bites happen all year long, and are as prevalent in the winter as the warmer weather. People interact with animals indoors as well as outdoors, and the advent of dog-friendly pet stores, which encourage patrons to bring their dogs to the store, create additional opportunities for human-animal contact. Another common misconception involves the need to establish the viciousness of an animal as a requirement for a claim against the animal’s owner/handler. The following posts will address a number of dog bite issues.

The first and most popular, however erroneous, statement that is often heard regarding dog bites is that “Every dog is entitled to one bite.” This is not true in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. This misconception stems from British Common Law, which did not impose liability, or responsibility, for damages caused by a dog bite unless the animal’s owner had some degree of knowledge of his dog’s dangerous propensities. Thus, the animal’s owner would not be responsible for the consequences that flowed from the first episode where a dog bit someone, because there was no proof of prior knowledge of the dog’s dangerous nature. Although a small number of states have chosen to adopt the one bite rule by statute, many states have changed the common law by enacting specific legislation addressing the dog bite issue (those states that do not have a dog bite statute generally follow the one bite rule).

New Jersey and Pennsylvania are ‘strict liability’ states for dog bites, and they join the majority of states in adopting this approach, which is set forth in a state statute or law. Strict liability means that the owner of the animal is responsible for the consequences of the bite without regard to the owner’s knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of the dog’s dangerousness, and without the need to prove negligence on the part of the dog owner. In Pennsylvania, the dog bite statute applies to a bite that causes severe injury but not one that causes little injury. The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that there are three causes of action which might exist in a dog bite case:

  1. common law negligence;
  2. common law absolute liability;
  3. strict liability imposed by the “dog-bite” statute, N.J.S.A. 4:19-16

 

That same court has also held that the Comparative Negligence Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1-5.3, is applicable to statutory strict liability imposed by the “dog-bite” statute. The defendant, who is the person being sued, has the burden to prove the plaintiff’s “unreasonable and voluntary exposure to a known risk” in order to avoid liability for a dog bite. This means that the defense must prove that the plaintiff, or claimant, knew the dog had a propensity to bite either because of the dog’s known viciousness or because of the plaintiff’s deliberate acts intended to incite the animal. The purpose of this ruling preserves the intent of the statute in imposing liability while providing a defense against a person who torments a dog and then sues its owner, but it does not allow proof of mere negligence to constitute a defense in a strict liability action.