I have a love/hate relationship with dogs. I love my dog, but I hate dogs who chase me on my bike or who snarl at me on my runs. When I go bike riding out on the country roads near Geneva, NY where I live, I even carry a small pepper spray canister to defend myself from man’s best friend.
Yes, I protect myself from “unleashed” dogs. But unfortunately, New York State negligence law does not. Believe me. As a NY personal injury lawyer who handles dog bite / attack cases, I know first hand!
The problem in New York – unlike in other states – is that to hold a dog owner liable for injuries, you need to show the owner knew or should have known the dog had “vicious propensities”. If you do, the owner is “strictly” liable to you for your injuries. That’s all well and good where a dog with a history of biting or attacking bites you, but not much else.
For example, consider this situation: A nice, friendly dog, who has never bitten anyone, is negligently released by its owner onto a busy roadway and darts out into traffic or into a bicyclist, causing an accident. Shouldn’t the injured victim be able to sue the dog owner for his negligence?
Almost two years ago I blogged about a case called Doerr v. Goldsmith where a New York Appellate Court (the First Department) was confronted with those same facts. The five judges voted 3-to-2 that, even when a dog doesn’t have a “vicious” bone in his body, negligently releasing a dog near traffic can be grounds for liability. I loved that ruling! That’s why I blogged about it.
But that lovely case has now been undone. Just the other day, the Court of Appeals – the highest Court in New York State – reversed the Appellate Court’s ruling, holding that dog owners cannot be liable for negligently handling or releasing their dogs into traffic. To sue the dog owner, you must show the dog had vicious propensities the owner knew or should have known about, and that this viciousness caused your injuries. Period!
This is a big disappointment for bicyclists, motorcyclists and even regular motorists. And the rule makes no sense, especially in light of a recent case from the same court (Court of Appeals), Hastings v. Sauve, which held that an owner of a cow – or other farm animal — can be liable for negligently allowing the cow to roam onto a road and cause an accident. Obviously, the cow is not vicious, but still the owner can be held liable. So why not the same rule for dogs? Why can’t a dog owner be held liable for allowing its dog – even a friendly non-vicious one — to run loose and cause a car or bike accident?
The rule just seems so unfair in so many ways. For example, if two people are playing “catch” with a ball near a busy street, and the ball strikes a cyclist, causing him to fall, the players can be held liable for negligence. But if those same players send their dog running across the street, and the dog causes an accident, they can’t be held liable. Does that make sense? Of course not.
Our Court of Appeals usually gets it right, but this time they certainly did not.
Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org I’d love to hear from you!
Michael G. Bersani, Esq.