Earlier this year I wrote about a change under hoof in New York about animals causing injury. It has long been held that animal owners could only be liable for their animals’ acts if there was a “known vicious propensity,” that being some type of aggressive or threatening behavior. Hence the phrase, “every dog gets one free bite.”
Under those circumstances the owner was strictly liable for injuries, and there was no cause of action for negligence.
But the Court of Appeals cracked that door open earlier this year in Hastings v. Suave, holding in a case where a cow wandered through a poorly kept fence into a road where it was hit, that a cause of action could exist for negligence. This had nothing at all to do with the animal’s viciousness or not, but was solely based on the conduct of the owner.
The court also held that the matter of dogs, cats and other domestic pets was not before it, and would await another day.
That day now seems on the imminent horizon, as today the Appellate Division First Department ruled in Doerr v. Goldsmith, a case where two people on opposite sides of the road in Central Park were playing with a dog. One called the dog and the other released it. A bicyclist was riding in the road and couldn’t avoid impact.
As neatly summarized by the majority opinion:
Plaintiff testified that Goldsmith “was holding a dog in a manner that he was almost hugging the dog, so he had his arm around the chest and the neck of the dog” and that Smith was “slightly bending down and clapping her hands on her upper thighs.” Interpreting Smith’s actions to be a signal to the dog (which was hers) to come to her, plaintiff screamed out, “Watch your dog.” Plaintiff then saw the dog in the middle of the road, but was unable to avoid colliding with it and being propelled off the bicycle. Defendants do not materially dispute plaintiff’s recounting of the incident. Plaintiff seeks to recover against defendants on a theory of negligence. He does not claim that the dog’s actions were a result of any vicious propensities of which defendants may have been aware.
Everybody agrees, it ain’t the fault of the dog, even though courts and lawyers eschew words such as “ain’t.”
Given New York’s historic position on these cases, the defendants moved for summary judgment saying they were immune from anything they did because New York doesn’t have a negligence cause of action. The lower court disagreed and denied the motion. Defendants’ appealed and won, but then the Court of Appeals ruled in the cow case, and so this dog case was re-visted by the appellate court.
The First Department has now reversed itself and allowed the matter to stand, based on the logic in the cow case.
The dissent disagrees, writing that the Court of Appeals didn’t rule on this, having only ruled about farm animals and specifically left dog and pet cases for another day. Leave to appeal should be granted, the dissenters argued, and if the Court of Appeals wants to change the law that is its business.
And so, with a split decision, this case will no doubt go to the Court of Appeals.
My prediction: New York’s long-held policy of granting immunity to animal owners for their own negligence (as opposed to the animal’s viciousness) will fall by the wayside as illogical. Immunity for negligence makes no sense at all, and is something that only a legislature can grant.
Lastly, a hat tip to attorney Gregory Bagen for taking this case given the state of the law when incident occurred. He took on a matter that he knew, to be successful, would take years of appellate work and expense just to get to the jury. Well done.
This was superb legal work on the part of Mr. Bagen. He recognized a good set of facts to challenge NY’s illogical and antiquated law regarding domesticated animal related injuries and seized the opportunity on behalf of his client.
So now a jury decides whether to pay a the plaintiff money based on what? Decisions the dog made, or the owner? This seems to mean you let your dog out of a pen or off a leash at your financial peril, which isn’t exactly good for the dog.
So now a jury decides whether to pay a the plaintiff money based on what?
Based on the negligence of the owner, of course.
I’m perplexed: Are you suggesting that people should have immunity for their negligence if it injures others?
Interesting case and great write-up. During law school I worked with defendants’ appellate counsel, who are fantastic lawyers. I’m curious to see how this will all play out if the case goes up.
Since a human cannot control a dog’s movements except by keeping it on a leash or in a cage, it would seem this ruling makes it impossible to avoid liability without resorting to those tools. Not every bad thing that happens in life should generate a financial penalty for somebody else. In my humble, non-expert opinion. @Eric Turkewitz –
Since a human cannot control a dog’s movements…
This will come as a shock to all those dog owners that taught their pets to sit, stay, come, rollover, and stick out their paws to shake.
It will likely also come as a stunner to all those dogs being used in law enforcement and the military, specifically trained by their handlers in various tasks.
May I suggest a few episodes of The Dog Whisperer?
@Eric Turkewitz – Come on. You couldn’t make a case out of my dog ignoring my commands, chasing a squirrel, and causing a jogger to trip and fall? Or my dog, startled by a loud noise, causing grandma to fall down the stairs — and sue my insurance company? I just don’t see how I escape getting sued, or paying higher insurance premiums for owning a dog.
You couldn’t make a case out of my dog ignoring my commands,
You didn’t read the case. The dog wasn’t ignoring commands, it was following them. The dog did exactly as directed and ran across the street from the person holding it to the person asking it to come. Directly into the path of the bicyclist.
The whole point of the case is that it isn’t about the dog.
@Eric Turkewitz – Forgive my suspicion that humans will ultimately be found liable for all sorts of things dogs do, in the absence of clear prior warning they are dangerous.
Forgive my suspicion that humans will ultimately be found liable for all sorts of things dogs do…
Sometimes they might, sometimes not, depending on the facts. That is what juries do, they sort through the facts.
And most jurors are just like you, deeply cynical. I can’t imagine any but the best of cases prevailing. But this particular one, with one person calling for the dog to cross the street and the dog doing as told, may just well fit that bill.