Every once in a while, my news feed delivers to me some horrendous story about a lawsuit involving a vicious attack by someone’s exotic pet animal such as a monkey or wolf or bear. Yes, some folks don’t find owning a standard run-of-the-mill dog or cat satisfying enough. No sir, they want to take a “walk on the wild side”. They might get a pet wolf, boa, miniature crocodile – you name it.
Since this is a legal blog, and a New York one, I am going to speak about what you have to prove in New York if you are attacked by a pet animal such as a bear or wolf versus the proof you need if you are attacked by a traditional pet – like a dog. There’s a legal difference!
Let me briefly digress. We had a case several years ago where our client accepted an invitation to visit a friend who was soon to be the lucky recipient of lawsuit papers signed by yours truly. What did he do to earn such an honor? He harbored his own private collection of caged bears and other exotic animals, a miniature zoo. Just a nice little hobby. He loved showing off his trophy beasts to friends and neighbors, and that’s what he did to our client. Unfortunately, he failed to warn our client about the length of the bears’ arms. Our client inadvertently wandered too close to a cage, and the bear got him in – well – a bear hug. I’ll spare you the gruesome details of what happened next.
We have also had countless dog attack cases, but that bear attack case was really different, so I’ll never forget it.
The animal was different, but so too were the “elements of the case”, that is, what you have to prove to win.
Here in a nutshell is the difference: If the offending “pet” is an exotic animal, the owner is “strictly” liable for the injuries, regardless of whether the owner was “negligent” (careless). In other words, with exotic animals, the owner is liable no matter how conscientiously he tried to protect the public from harm. If harm arises, even from a set of circumstances beyond the owner’s control (e.g.: a meteor strikes a cage containing a boa constrictor, bursts open the cage door, and the slippery inhabitant slithers to the house next door where it coils itself around an unsuspecting resident), the owner is liable to the victim. Having a pet boa constrictor makes you liable no matter how your snake got to the victim.
Dog (or cat) attacks are different. The rule is still one of “strict” liability, but with a caveat: The owner is STRICTLY liable but ONLY IF THE OWNER KNEW OR SHOULD HAVE KNOWN OF THE ANIMAL’S VICIOUS PROPENSITIES. Usually that means the owner is not liable for the bite or attack if the dog never attacked anyone before. (I said “usually”. There are exceptions).
On the other hand, with exotic animals, it doesn’t matter whether the owner “knew or should have known” they were vicious. The law assumes they were vicious and assumes the owner knew or should have known it. The STRICT liability is REALLY strict, whereas with dogs and other domestic pets it is more wishy-washy.
As you can see, the law is much more lenient on dog and cat owners than on crocodile owners. If your exotic animal attacks someone, you literally have no defense. If your traditional pet attacks someone, you can claim “hey, i didn’t know it was dangerous”.
That said, “strict liability rules”, even wishy-washy ones, are fairly rare in New York tort law. In most types of personal injury cases, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant was “negligent” (careless) in order to win a liability finding. This is true for slips and falls, motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, etc.
Animal attack cases are a different “animal”. The word “negligence” never appears in those cases. Just “strict liability”.
Whether your case involves “negligence” or “strict liability”, make sure you choose a knowledgeable New York personal injury lawyer. Your negligence in choosing your lawyer will make you strictly liable for the bad result you get!