Don’t get Bitten by the Actions of your Dog

Many of us own dogs as pets and companions. As such, we should all be familiar with the state of the law in New Jersey as it relates to the liability of dog owners for their dog’s actions.

New Jersey, like many other states, has a “strict liability” dog bite statute. Basically, this means that, if your dog bites someone, you will be automatically responsible to that person for any damages that the person receives as result of the dog bite. That statute, N.J.S.A. 4:19-16 imposes liability upon a dog’s owner where the dog actually “bites” someone and the bite occurs while that person is either in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the dog owner. Thus, under New Jersey law, even if a dog owner has no previous indication of a dog’s propensity to be vicious or to bite, the owner will be responsible in damages to a person who is bitten by their dog under the above circumstances.

Of course, in addition to actual biting, dogs can also cause injuries in many other ways. For instance, a dog may jump up on someone and knock them down, cause serious scarring as result of scratches, or cause a motor vehicle accident by darting into the street. When damages are suffered by individuals as result of these types of actions by a dog, general negligence principles, as opposed to the above statute, will apply to determine whether or not the dog owner is ultimately responsible for damages. For instance, if a dog owner knows that its dog likes to jump up on people but fails to prevent the dog from jumping up on a stranger, etc. and the dog ultimately knocks that person down, it is likely that the dog owner will be responsible in damages. Similarly, if a dog owner knows or has reason to know that its dog routinely gets out of its yard or house and runs in the street, that owner it may be responsible for a car accident caused by the dog’s darting out into traffic. Under these circumstances, however, the improper actions of the injured party, if any, will be compared to the dog’s owner and any damages that the injured party would otherwise be entitled to would be adjusted accordingly.

Interestingly, there have been cases which discuss the dog owner’s knowledge of its dog’s “dangerous propensity” based, not on the prior specific actions of that individual dog but, instead, on the dog owner’s knowledge of the “dangerous propensity” of a certain type of breed. So far, in the State of New Jersey, courts have rejected this theory of liability and, as such, an injured party, under these circumstances, must prove that the specific dog was engaged in prior vicious acts.

The good news for dog owners is that a typical homeowners’ policy of insurance will often cover claims resulting from dog bites or injuries caused by dogs. However, as you can imagine, not all homeowners’ policies of insurance are the same and some homeowners’ policies may specifically exclude coverage for such dog related claims. Therefore, it is important that, if you own a dog, you contact your insurance company to ensure that you have appropriate coverage. Further, it is similarly important that, when filling out an application for insurance, you inform the insurance company of all animals that live in your home.

Of course, because there are many different factual scenarios in these types of cases, is important to contact a lawyer to discuss the specific facts of your individual case whether someone has made a claim against you or whether you have been injured by someone’s else’s dog. We invite you to contact our office to discuss any issues or questions you may have with respect to this blog.