The Syracuse Post Standard reported today that an Auburn, New York police officer suffered muscle wounds and injuries requiring stitches after a pit bull attacked him Sunday night. The officer had walked up a driveway on East Genesee Street to investigate some smoke coming from the back (it turned out to be a pit fire), when a large pit bull charged at him from the porch with such fury that it broke free of its tether. The dog sunk its teeth into the officer’s right arm and right upper leg before the dog’s “dog sitter” pulled the dog free of him.
After years of handling Central New York dog bite cases, I read newspaper articles like this somewhat differently than most people. I “analyze” the case from a “liability” perspective as I read. It’s a professional hazard!
But now that I am on the topic, let’s talk about the liability issues in this case. Is the dog owner, who was not home, liable to the officer? What about the dog “sitter”? Is anyone liable? After all, the dog broke free of its chain, so the owner, or the sitter, had at least taken the precaution of tying the dog up. Does it matter whether they had tried to be careful in securing the dog?
Here’s how New York dog bite liability law works: If a dog bites you, the owner is automatically (lawyers say “strictly” liable), as long as you can prove that the owner knew or should have known that the dog had “vicious propensities” (which usually means it had bitten or attacked, or indicated that it wanted to bite or attack, someone else before). Does it matter whether that they tied the dog up? No! Again, the owner is automatically liable to the dog-bite victim if he knew or should have known his dog had that kind of violent “tendency”.
On the other hand, the owner can lessen his liability somewhat if he can prove that the dog-bite victim was partially responsible for getting bitten. This is called the “comparative negligence” defense. If a jury agrees that the bite victim was partially responsible (for example, if he had been tormenting the dog, or got too close to it knowing that it was a mean dog), the jury can lower the verdict in proportion to the fault of the victim. For a more complete analysis on New York dog bite law, see my prior blog post on the subject .
The police officer here actually has a better New York dog attack case than you or I would. Why? Because of New York’s General Municipal Law (GML) section 205-e, a special law that protects police officers. Here, if the police officer’s lawyer can find that a State statute or local regulation regarding pit bulls, or dog leashes, or harboring dangerous dogs, was violated, he can bring a claim under GML 205-e. The good thing about GML 205-e is that the person who caused the injury by violating the regulation or statute can’t claim any “comparative negligence” against the officer. That means that even if the officer was himself partly to blame for getting bitten, the owner will be responsible for fully compensating his injuries, medical expenses, lost wages, etc.
So now you know how it feels to read a newspapers story like a New York dog bit lawyer! Aren’t you glad you don’t do this for a living?!