What is your liability if your dog bites someone?
In The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau notices a dog while checking into an inn, and asks the innkeeper if his dog bites. Assured by the innkeeper that his dog doesn’t bite, the inspector pets the dog, who promptly sinks his teeth into Clouseau’s hand.
“I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite,” Clouseau protests. “That,” the innkeeper informs him, “is not my dog.”
Unfortunately, real-life dog bites aren’t humorous. New York has both strict liability and negligence-based dog bite laws that affect every dog owner in the state. The neighboring states of New Jersey and Connecticut have liability laws that dog owners need to know about as well.
The New York “One Bite” Law
Section 121 of the New York Code covers different levels of liability for pet owners based on two factors:
- Is the dog known to be dangerous?
- Did the dog owner demonstrate reasonable care to restrain or control the dog?
If the owner knows—or should know—that the dog is dangerous, usually because it has attacked or bitten previously, the owner can face both civil and criminal penalties. If the dog has never bitten anyone before, the “one bite” rule can lessen the potential liabilities. And, if the person bitten provoked the dog, either on the day of the attack or even at an earlier time, that can affect the owner’s liability as well.
What Is a Dangerous Dog?
New York law defines a dangerous dog as one that “without justification” either:
- Attacks and injures or kills a person, “companion animal,” farm animal or “domestic animal”
- “Behaves in a manner which a reasonable person would believe poses a serious and unjustified imminent threat of serious physical injury or death” to one or more of the foregoing
For dangerous dogs, New York Agriculture & Markets Code section 123 calls for potential criminal charges as well if:
- The dog was previously declared to be a “dangerous dog”
- The owner negligently allowed the dog to bite someone
- The victim suffered a “serious injury”
The law defines a serious injury as one that causes death, serious disfigurement, or the “protracted impairment” or loss of any body part or body organ.
If a “dangerous dog” overcomes an owner’s attempts to restrain it and kills a person, the owner may also be charged with a misdemeanor, in addition to facing civil penalties.
Even if a dog isn’t considered dangerous in the eyes of the law, the owner can still be held responsible if the victim can prove that the owner was negligent. For example, if the dog wasn’t leashed or kept in a secure enclosure and the dog ran off and bit someone, the victim could have grounds to sue the owner.
What if the dog was adopted by the owner from a shelter, and the owner didn’t know that the dog had a history of biting or aggressive behavior in the shelter? The owner may still be liable in the event of a lawsuit.
If a dog bites someone and that person doesn’t bring civil action immediately, that doesn’t mean the owner is off the hook. The statute of limitations to bring a civil case to court in New York for a dog bite is three years.
Pet Owner’s Defense
Unfortunately, “he’s never bitten anyone before” isn’t a legal defense. But the law does provide several potential defenses for a civil liability claim. They include:
- The dog was a law enforcement dog carrying out its duties, and so was not a “dangerous dog” according to the legal definition
- The dog was protecting its home against a person who was trespassing or committing a crime on the property
- The dog was protecting its owner, its puppies or itself
- The dog was reacting to pain or suffering it was experiencing when it bit or injured a person
- The dog was provoked when it was tormented, abused or assaulted by the person who was bitten
Dog Bite Liability in New Jersey
In New Jersey, a dog’s owner is liable in a civil lawsuit when the animal bites someone if the victim was on public property or was legally on private property when the incident happened. It doesn’t matter whether the owner knew the dog had ever been vicious or bitten anyone before.
The victim must prove three things:
- The owner had a duty to take reasonable care to control the dog’s behavior
- The owner failed to meet that duty
- As a result of that failure, the dog caused harm to the injured person
As in New York, the owner must take additional precautions and faces increase liabilities if the dog has a history of aggressive or dangerous behavior.
Lawsuits must be filed within two years of the injury.
Dog Bite Liability in Connecticut
Connecticut’s dog bite law also has a time limit of two years to file a lawsuit. In that state, a dog owner is deemed liable if these three conditions are met:
- The injury is to the person or property of another
- The injured person was not trespassing
- The injured person was not “teasing, tormenting, or abusing” the dog
Also, as in New Jersey, the owner is liable whether or not the dog exhibited dangerous or aggressive behavior in the past.
Dog Bites and Homeowners Insurance
Most homeowners’ and renters’ insurance policies cover dog bites, up to the liability limits. In 2019, according to the Insurance Information Institute and State Farm, liability claims related to dog bites and other injuries caused by canines cost homeowner insurers $797 million.
In New York the average insurance claim for a dog bite is nearly $56,000, the highest in the nation. Average claims in New Jersey are just under $48,000. Many policies also cover dog bites outside the home—say, if the owner is walking or traveling with the dog. For claims that exceed liability limits, typically $100,000 to $300,000, the dog owner must pay the excess damages.
We highly recommend checking your insurance policy or confirming with your insurance agent or broker that your policy includes protection against the liability caused by a dog or other pet. And the decision to adopt a dog should also prompt a call to your insurance partner. Some homeowners’ and renters’ policies may exclude certain dog breeds, such as pit bulls and Rottweilers, but owners can purchase a canine liability policy for protection.
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