Most of us probably think that dog owners in Nassau County & Suffolk County on Long Island and elsewhere in New York are responsible anytime that the actions of their dog injures another person. However, this is not always the case. In fact, New York is arguably the most dog friendly state when it comes to an owner being held liable for dog related injuries. In June of this year, New York's highest court once again confirmed that dog owners are only responsible for injuries caused by their dogs under a theory of strict liability, and not based upon a claim of negligence.
So what does that mean for the person who becomes injured by a dog bite, a jumping dog, a running dog, etc.? Essentially this means that the dog owner is only responsible if three essential facts can be proven. The first fact that must be proven is that the dog actually caused an injury by biting someone. If there is no proof of an actual bite, then there will be no liability. Next, it must be proven that the dog had " vicious propensities " before the day that it bit someone. This means that it must be shown that the dog had a natural inclination or a habit to act in a way that is dangerous. This would include the dog's disposition or attitude towards people, and whether it had bitten anyone before. A prior bite by the dog is usually the best evidence, but aggressive behavior such as snarling, baring teeth, growling, and lunging can be sufficient if the nature and frequency of this behavior would make it reasonable to believe that the dog may cause an injury by biting. However, proof of mere barking, jumping, pulling, etc. will not be enough to prove a vicious propensity. Finally, since a dog owner is allowed to assume that their dog will not injure anyone,it must be proven that the dog's owner knew or should have known about the dog's vicious propensities. This knowledge can be proven by showing the dog actually bit someone before, or possibly by showing that the dog was kept muzzled, tied up by a rope or chain, or that the owner would put the dog in to a closed room when people came to their home, or by showing that that the dog growled, snarled, bared its teeth or lunged at everyone that visited or passed by the owner's home.
To collect the necessary evidence to prove liability on the owner, you can request prior bite records concerning the dog from the Department of Health. Anytime that a doctor or hospital or doctor treats someone for a dog bite they are required to provide a report to the Department of Health. It is also a good idea to speak to the neighbors of the dog owner who may have knowledge of the dog's behavior, as well others who may go to the home on a regular basis. For instance the mail carrier, UPS or Fed Ex route driver, landscaper, bottled water delivery person, etc. all may have encountered the dog and may have information that can be used to show that the dog acted viciously.
New York is one of the only states in the country where a dog owner is not responsible if they negligently fail to prevent their dog from causing an injury to someone. For instance, if their dog injures someone while chasing a ball, running to their owner on command, running loose off leash, running in front of, or into, a person riding their bicycle or while walking, etc., the owner will not be held liable.
Based upon the recent decision of our state's high court, this will be the law regarding injuries caused by dogs for many years to come. If you have any questions about a dog bite, call me at 631-402-5527 for a free and honest opinion.
Mark T. Freeley, Esq.