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Recent New Jersey Dog Bite Cases

New Jersey Dog Bite Law is constantly developing to address the changing nature of dog ownership in society. As more and more people adopt dogs as family pets, dog bites become a more pressing issue for communities and neighborhoods.

Here are some recent New Jersey cases on dog bite injuries and liability of dog owners for injuries caused by dogs:

  • Moncur v. Ellison, No. A-2709-04T1 (N.J. App. Div. May 11, 2007).
  • Pippin v. Fink, 350 N.J. Super. 270, 794 A.2d 893 (App. Div. 2002)
  • Trisuzzi v. Tabatchnik, No. A-5326-93T2 (N.J. App. Div. Oct 31, 1995)
  • Johnson v. Rehders, No. A-6556-05T5 (N.J. App. Div. Sept. 27, 2007)
  • Reynolds v. Lancaster County Prison, No. A-3732-97T3 (N.J. App. Div. Oct. 27, 1999)
  • Spells v. Uhland, No. A-1373-06T1 (N.J. App. Div. Nov. 5, 2007)

Elements of a Strict Liability Dog Bite Case in New Jersey

In New Jersey, a dog owner can be held strictly liable for the injuries caused by a bite from his or her dog regardless of the owner’s knowledge of any previous viciousness. Strict liability means that the owner is held responsible or liable for the damages the dog causes, regardless of fault or blame for the accident. Under N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16 (the “Dog-Bite” statute), the injured person must show three elements for the owner to be liable:

  • The defendant is the owner of the dog;
  • The dog bit the injured party; and
  • The bite occurred while the injured person was in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the dog owner’s property.

If the plaintiff successfully shows these three elements, the injured person is entitled to compensation for his or her injuries.

Recent Dog Bite Issues in New Jersey

These recent cases discuss the following issues: whether a landlord can be considered an “owner” under N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16, whether one is lawfully upon private property, the sufficiency of damages in a dog bite case, and whether a dog owner is liable to an independent contractor who agrees to care for a dog.

What is an “Owner” for purposes of the Dog Bite Statute?

Under N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16, “owner” is not defined. For this reason, courts have developed case law to define who is an owner. A recent case discussed the issue of whether landlords may be considered “owners” for purposes of the Dog-Bite statute. In Moncur v. Ellison, a pit bull attacked two children after escaping from a nearby property. Moncur v. Ellison, No. A-2709-04T1, slip op. at 2 (N.J. App. Div. May 11, 2007). The dog was owned by a tenant of the property. Id. The landlords, the Erickson’s, were not connected to the incident other than the fact that they owned the property. Id. The court ruled that landlords are non-owners for purposes of the Dog-Bite statute and, therefore, N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16 did not apply to the Erickson’s. Id. at 4.

Another recent case confronted the issue of whether a landlord can be held liable for the bite or attack of a tenant’s dog under common law principles. In Spells v. Uhland, the defendants leased property to a tenant who owned a dog. Spells v. Uhland, No. A-1373-06T1, slip op. at 1 (N.J. App. Div. Nov. 5, 2007). The dog allegedly bit the plaintiff who was injured by the attack. Id. The incident took place on an adjoining piece of property not owned by the defendants. Id. The plaintiff argued that the landlords were liable under common law principles of negligence. Id. at 2. Specifically, plaintiff argued that a landlord is liable “for the maintenance of a dangerous condition on its property – in this case, an alleged vicious dog.” Id. The Court held that these principles did not apply to the defendants because there was no evidence to suggest the landlords “knew or should have known the dog was vicious and posed a danger to persons living in the neighborhood.” Id. Thus, without knowledge of the dog’s viciousness, landlords were not liable for the dog bite and its injuries under common law principles. Id.

In Pippin v. Fink, the Court defined “owner” to include co-inhabitants. Pippin v. Fink, 350 N.J. Super. 270, 794 A.2d 893 (App. Div. 2002). In this case, a Rottweiler attacked a young child while she swam in a neighbor’s pool. Id. The Rottweiler was originally purchased and registered by Agresta when she resided in New York. Id. Subsequently, Agresta moved into the house of her life partner, Fink. Id. The incident took place in the backyard swimming pool of their home. Id. Fink argued she should not be considered the “owner” of the dog for purposes of the statute because she did not register or purchase the dog. Id. at 797. The court ruled that an “owner” is a person who holds themselves out to the world as such and enjoys the benefits and burdens of having the dog. Id. Both women testified that they considered the Rottweiler “their dog” and evidence of their actions showed that both enjoyed the benefits and burdens of the pet. Id. Therefore, the court held that Fink was an “owner” for purposes of the Dog-Bite statute. Id.

These recent cases have helped to define an “owner” in dog attack cases. Landlords, who have no connection to a dog other than owning property where a dog may reside, are not “owners” for purposes of N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16. Moncur, No. A-2709-04T1, slip op. at 2. Furthermore, landlords cannot be held liable for injuries sustained from a tenant’s dog unless they knew or should have known of the dog’s viciousness. Spells, No. A-1373-06T1, slip op. at 1. However, a co-inhabitant may be considered an “owner” under the Dog-Bite statute if he or she enjoys the benefits and burdens of the dog as a pet. Pippin, 350 N.J. Super. 270 at 794.

Lawfully upon private property” under the Dog Bite Statute

The issue of whether a person is “lawfully upon private property” was recently argued before the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division. In Trisuzzi v. Tabatchnik, the plaintiff was taking his customary evening walk when a German Shepard bit him. Trisuzzi v. Tabatchnik, No. A-5326-93T2, slip op. at 2 (N.J. App. Div. Oct 31, 1995). At trial, there was an issue of fact as to whether the incident took place on the public roadway or while the plaintiff was lawfully on the defendants’ property. Under N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16, a person is lawfully upon private property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner. The jury concluded the attack did not take place on the street or while the plaintiff was lawfully on the defendant’s property after answering “no” to the following questions:

  • Did the dog bite plaintiff in a public place or while plaintiff was lawfully on defendants’ property?
  • Did the defendants act negligently in keeping the dog on June 15, 1988?

Id. at 8. Accordingly, the jury returned a no cause of action verdict. Id. at 2.

The appellate court held that these instructions were improper because they lacked a directive concerning the plaintiff’s right by implied invitation to be lawfully on the defendants’ property. Id. at 9. Under the doctrine of private necessity, if the plaintiff was on the defendants’ property to protect himself or his family from serious physical harm, he would have an implied invitation to be there. Id. at 8. Because of the improper instructions, the Court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial to determine whether an implied invitation existed. Id. at 13.

An Owner’s Liability to an Independent Contractor in Dog Bite Cases

Ordinarily, an owner is strictly liable to anyone for injuries sustained from his dog’s bite in a public place or while the victim is lawfully in a private place. N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16. However, an assumption of the risk defense is available to owners in certain situations. Reynolds v. Lancaster County Prison No. A-3732-97T3, slip op. at 11 (N.J. App. Div. Oct. 27, 1999).

In a recent case, the Court determined whether a dog owner can be held liable for a dog bite to an independent contractor charged with caring for the owner’s dog. Id. at 10. In Reynolds v. Lancaster County Prison, an independent contractor was paid to look after the owner’s Rottweiler. Id. at 4. Subsequently, the Rottweiler attacked the independent contractor. Id. The Court determined that the facts of the case satisfied the elements of the Dog-Bite statute. However, the Court ruled that an owner, under these circumstances, may rely on an assumption of the risk defense. Id. at 11. The Court reasoned that the current set of facts was analogous to a situation where a dog owner turns his pet over to a veterinarian. Id. In those circumstances, if a veterinarian is injured by the pet, an assumption of the risk defense is available to the owner. Id. Therefore, where an independent contractor agrees to care for a dog, the dog’s owner is not liable “unless the owner knew, or had reason to know, the dog was vicious and withheld that information.” Id.

The Sufficiency of Damages in New Jersey Dog Bite Cases

Frequently, an issue in dog attack cases is the sufficiency of damages from a dog attack. In Johnson v. Rehders, a fourteen year old boy was bitten while visiting the home of the dog’s owner. Johnson v. Rehders, No. A-6556-05T5, slip op. at 2 (N.J. App. Div. Sept. 27, 2007). The attack resulted in two bites requiring 50 to 60 stitches. Id. The dog’s owner acknowledged liability for the attack under the Dog-Bite statute, N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16. Id. at 4. The sole issue on appeal was the measure of damages. Id. The trial court awarded the victim $5,000. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that “the damages awarded by the jury were manifestly inadequate and disproportionate to his injuries.” Id. at 5. The appellate court ruled that where a jury’s award is deemed deficient, the Court should increase “the award to the lowest figure that reasonably can be supported by the proofs.” Id. at 9. The evidence showed that the child suffered during the procedure to reconstruct his face, still suffers pain, and his scars, measuring 2 centimeters and 4.5 centimeters in length, could be permanent. Id. Consequently, the Court held that the award to the plaintiff was deficient and should be increased due to the plaintiff’s youth and the nature of the injury. Id. at 10. The Court ordered an additur of $20,000, for a total award of $25,000. Id.

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