Dogs do not always live up to their reputation as ‘man’s best friend’. Sometimes, a dog can, without justification, turn on people, other dogs, or farm animals and injure them. Other times, an innocent one can push people over during play resulting in injuries.
Either way, the injured parties will often seek redress in a court of law expecting the dog’s owner to take liability for his or her pet’s actions. While this is likely to happen in the rest of the US, the same cannot be said of the State of New York.
New York Law on the Legal Liability of Dog Owners
According to New York’ Agriculture and Markets Law, owners of “dangerous dogs” must pay for the medical costs of treating a dog bite inflicted by their pet. The law defines a dangerous dog as one that attacks people or other animals without justification resulting in death or injury.
The dog also behaves in a manner that poses the threat of physical injury or death to a person. Finally, it attacks hearing dogs, service dogs, and guide dogs without justification.
The Vicious Propensities Doctrine
To get more than the medical costs associated with a dog bite from a dangerous dog, you must go a step further. You must establish that the owner of the dangerous dog knew of its “vicious propensities”. This is the propensity to act in a manner that endangers the safety of people or property. The owner must have noticed that the dog growls, bares its teeth, or snaps at people even if it has never attacked anyone. He or she must have also restrained it as a result of its actions.
This necessity to establish an animal’s vicious propensity before an owner takes strict liability for its actions is what sets New York’s law apart from the rest of the nation. Dating back to 1816, this curious statute is still in effect 200 years later.
What About Guard Dogs?
The law also applies to guard dogs. Owning a guard dog does not imply that you know of its vicious propensities even if you keep it confined or chained, or if it barks at people. In the same light, owning an animal without these propensities does not shield you from liability. For instance, you may own a docile dog that has a propensity to jump on people. If you are aware of this fact, and it jumps on people and injures them, then you are held liable for its actions.
Scavetta Vs Wechsler
A recent court case in New York, which made it all the way to the New York Appeals Court, highlighted this law on pet owner’s liability. On March 2014, 85 year-old Stuart Wechsler tied Kenny, his golden retriever, to a bike rack outside a pizzeria. He, however, failed to notice that the rack was not securely fastened to the sidewalk.
As Stuart entered the pizzeria, the rack made a scraping noise and spooked Kenny. The frightened pooch then bolted down the street, dragging the rack behind him. Wechsler heard the racket and ran after his retriever but could not catch him. The dog darted past George Scavetta, 41, who was walking in the opposite direction, and hid under a nearby car.
Wanting to help the distressed animal, Scavetta approached it to free it. But Kenny took off again. The rack caught one of Scavetta’s legs, spinning him in the air before he landed on his back with a fractured leg. He was rushed to the nearby Mt Sinai Hospital for treatment. It would take Wechsler two hours to trace his dog several blocks away.
On leaving the hospital, Scavetta sued. He argued that Wechsler should have known better than to tie a dog to a flimsy bicycle rack. This action, he claimed, created a dangerous situation. A lower court, and then an appeals court, threw out the case because Scavetta could not prove that the dog had vicious propensities.
Although Wechsler was careless in tying his dog to a flimsy rack, this fact was deemed to be irrelevant to the case. Under New York law, pet owners cannot be sued for negligence when their pets cause injuries. If the case was in another state, say, Texas, any San Antonio personal injury attorney would have seen to it that Wechsler paid his dues.
In dismissing Scavetta’s suit, the five-judge panel of the appeals court had a lot to say on the matter. It claimed that New York’s law on pet owner’s liability was contrary to common sense and fairness. The judges also regarded it as rigid and archaic. Yes, Wechsler was negligent in tying his dog to the insecurely fastened rack. But he walked because in New York, the suit could only be about strict liability and not negligence.