New York law does not place the same liability on pet owners for injuries caused by pets that owners face in other jurisdictions. Plaintiffs and some courts have attempted to expand liability, as in Doerr v. Goldsmith, which combined two cases involving plaintiffs injured when they struck dogs while riding bicycles. The majority opinion did not provide much detail, but Justice Abdus-Salaam provided the facts in a concurring opinion.
In Doerr v. Goldsmith, the defendants had a dog legally unleashed in Central Park. One defendant was kneeling down and holding the dog, and the other defendant was on the other side of a bicycle road. As the plaintiff approached on his bicycle, the dog crossed the road when the defendant on the opposite side clapped her knees and allegedly called the dog. The plaintiff was injured when he was thrown from his bicycle after striking the dog. He sued both defendants in negligence, claiming they negligently controlled the dog and directed it into his path. He did not allege strict liability or vicious propensity in the dog.
The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that negligence cases based on injuries caused by a pet are barred by Bard and Petrone v. Fernandez. The plaintiff argued that this rule did not apply when the defendant turned the animal into an instrumentality of harm. The Supreme Court denied the motion, but the Appellate Division initially reversed and granted the motion. After the Court of Appeals released its opinion in Hastings v. Sauve, finding that Bard does not apply when a farm animal strays from the property, the Appellate Division vacated its original decision and substituted a new decision affirming the Supreme Court’s order.
The Appellate Division distinguished the case before it from Hastings and Bard. Here, the person’s actions made the dog an “instrumentality of harm.” If one defendant had not called the dog, and the other had not let it go, the plaintiff would not have been injured. Two Justices dissented, noting that Hastings was expressly limited to farm animals. The defendant appealed.
In the second case, Dobinski v. Lockhart, the plaintiff and her husband were riding bicycles on the shoulder of the road near the defendants’ farm. The defendant wife let her husband’s German Shepherds out of the house. The plaintiff struck one of the dogs, flipped over the front of the bicycle, and was injured.
The plaintiff sued both the husband and the wife. She alleged the defendants were negligent in allowing their dogs to leave their property and collide with her on the road and in failing to supervise and restrain them. She also alleged strict liability, claiming that the defendants had actual or constructive knowledge of the dogs’ harmful propensities, including a habit of running into the road. She claimed that the defendants created a dangerous condition on their premises and the roadway by failing to restrain the dogs.
The plaintiffs stated that they had not been familiar with the dogs before the incidents. The defendants said they had not received any complaints about the dogs and had not seen them act in a vicious manner. Two of their other dogs had run into the road and been hit by a vehicle, and the defendant stated that he had exercised those dogs by allowing them to chase his four-wheeler on his property.
The defendants moved for summary judgment. The Supreme Court denied the motion, and the Appellate Division reversed. The Appellate Division identified strict liability as the only viable theory, but it found that the defendants had shown that they did not have actual or constructive knowledge that “the dog had a propensity to interfere with traffic.”
In New York, a domestic animal’s owner is liable for injuries caused by the animal if the owner knows or should have known of its vicious propensities. “Vicious propensities” includes a propensity to do anything that is a potential danger to person or property, even if it is not aggressive. In Hastings, the Appeals Court held that a negligence suit could proceed when the owner of a farm animal allowed it to stray from the property. The Hastings court specifically stated that they were not considering whether the rule applied to household pets.
The concurring opinion here noted the difference between farm animals and household pets, pointing out farm animals’ size and tendency to behave aggressively, as well as the difficulty in training them and their proclivity for bolting. New York law requires farm animals to be raised in confinement. The same considerations and laws do not apply to pets.
In both cases, the Appeals Court found that Bard required it to reject the negligence claims. Hastings specifically does not apply to pets. The court also found that the plaintiff in the second case had failed to raise a triable issue of fact regarding whether the defendants had knowledge of the dogs’ harmful proclivities, and the defendants were entitled to summary judgment on the strict liability claim.
It appears New York is not ready to expand pet owner liability. If you have been injured by someone else’s pet, a skilled New York dog bite attorney can investigate your case and look for previous incidents that would indicate the owners had knowledge of vicious tendencies in the animal. Without showing the defendant had knowledge of vicious or dangerous proclivities in the animal, it is very difficult to recover for injuries caused by a household pet.
The Law Offices of Nicholas Rose, PLLC offers free consultations. Call 1-877-313-7673.
Doerr v. Goldsmith, June 9, 2015, New York Court of Appeals
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Dog Bites in New York City and Elsewhere Up from 2011, May 24, 2012, New York City Dog Bite Lawyer Blog