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When Is a Dog Owner Liable for a Dog Bite in New Jersey?
Most people love dogs. They have them as pets. They are beloved members of families. Dogs are mostly friendly. They provide a companion for just about anybody. There are many different dog breeds, the most popular including corgis, poodles, malteses, labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, beagles, rottweilers, shih tzus, cavalier king charles spaniels, beagles, belgian sheepdogs, english foxhounds, greyhounds, fox terriers, pitbulls, bulldogs, doberman pinschers, rottweillers, german shephards, great danes, siberian huskies, boxers and many more! But what happens when one of these dogs turns on a person or a stranger and bites them? Well a dog bite is subject to strict liability, but it is not that simple.
N.J.S.A § 4:19-16 Governs Dog Bite Strict Liability in New Jersey
If a dog bites you or if your dog bites someone, in New Jersey, the governing statute is N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16. This means that this statute will determine if the dog owner is liable for the injuries you sustained or for the injuries for the individual on the other end of your dog biting someone.
A Dog Owner is Responsible for Their Dog Biting Someone Else, No Matter Their Good Intentions!
First off, it is important to note that this is what is called a “strict liability” statute. That means that regardless of the dog owner’s intentions, regardless of whether the dog owner’s child accidentally lets the family german shepard out of the house and the german shepard accidentally and playfully bites someone, or if the dog owner seized their morkie onto someone and the morkie tears that person to shreds, and everything else in between, the dog owner cannot get out of being responsible for injuries for both the friendly great dane or the ferocious chihuahua. It is not to say that the small child letting the french bulldog out of the house and it accidentally bites someone is just as bad as the dog owner who seizes their maltipoo upon another and it attacks them, but rather it means that the dog owner is strictly liable, regardless of their intent.
The Dog Actually Has to Bite the Person-That's the Law!
Second, the dog must actually bite the individual to qualify under N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16. The statute reads that the dog “shall bite such person.” This means that the statute does not apply if say a dachshund or a border collie or a havanese or a basset hound or even a miniature schnauzer merely jumps on someone and even knocks them down, if the mastiff or dalmation or st. bernand did not actually bite the individual. The court case Gross v. Dunham, 91 N.J. Super. 519 (App. Div. 1966), stated that the statute intended to only apply when an individual was actually bitten by a dog, but then if there is a bite, then that person can also recover for the additional injuries suffered during the attack. As long as there was at least one bite, the individual can recover for other injuries too. For example, let’s say a body builder coming from the gym is walking on the beach with his coton de tulear. The coton de tulear accidentally drank the body builder’s protein shake and has a lot of energy. Now, a family of tourists are walking on the beach with their relative’s friendly but tough norwegian elkhound. Then the family and body builder strike up a friendly conversation. Meanwhile, the body builder’s coton de tulear sees a businessman far away walking his borzois and runs over and jumps on the businessman, knocking him to the ground, but does not bite. Although other potential claims may be involved, the businessman cannot sue the body builder under the N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16 dog bite statute, as the coton de tulear may have a lot of protein shake driven fight in it, but did not bite.
Keep it Public-Dog Must Bite Individual on Public Property or Private Property the Person is Lawfully Upon
Third, to qualify under the N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16 statute, the dog must have bitten someone on public property or on private property and that person bitten must have been on the private property lawfully. Whether a bichon fries or whippet bite someone, to qualify as on public property, it must be a place that the public can come into without the need of someone’s permission. A great example of this would be at a park. Let’s say a seven-foot elderly woman is playing fetch with her shy alaskan malamute. A professional boxer has his, recently neutered but very angry, chow chow on a thin lease. The dogs cross paths and the chow chow charges towards the alaskan malamute. The alaskan malamute, instead of protecting its owner, runs away and the chow chow jumps a remarkable 7 feet in the air and bites off the elderly woman’s ear. An ironic and eerily bittersweet set of events for the professional boxer, but this event does not come without a price. The elderly woman was in a public place and can qualify to sue the professional boxer under the statute. Although she may never get her ear back, she may get compensation for her injuries sustained from the dog bite. The professional boxer probably wishes a dog had bit off his ear too.
Dog Bites on Private Property
As stated above, if the person bitten by the dog is not on public property, they can recover under N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16 if they are on private property but allowed to be there. A person allowed to be on property is somebody who is lawfully allowed to be on that property, with the owner’s express or implied consent. The dog owner who brings his american hairless terrier to a backyard fourth of july party for dogs, where other owners bring their german punschers, swedish valhunds, and puliks, where a feisty löwchen attacks him. He can recover under the N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16 statute against the lowchen’s owner, since he was invited to the private property and lawfully there. In contrast, if a robber brings her briard to rob a family’s home and the family’s chinook scares the briard and bites the robber, the robber was not lawfully on the property and cannot recover under the N.J.S.A. § 4:19-16 statute.
What to Do If You Have Been Bitten by a Dog?
If you have been bitten by a dog and it is serious, first and foremost, seek medical attention. You have to be concerned that the dog that bit you had all of its proper shots. Make sure you are getting the proper medical professional, but also, make sure to report the attack or bite to the police. This is vital because the dog may be a harm to others. It is important to see a medical professional but noteworthily, there are six different levels of dog bites, as stated on nycacc.org on their flyer “Behavior Flyers Bite History and Potential for Future Aggression.” It ranges from a level 1 being no skin contact by teeth to level 2 being skin contact but without punctures to level 3 shallow punctures to level 4 deep punctures from one bite to level 5 multiple bites and level 6 death of the victim. That is not a medical evaluation but merely the different levels of dog bites and an individual should seek medical attention to make sure they are alright.
After seeking medical assistance, and if you decide you would like to explore your legal options, please contact us at 973-696-8391. We can give you a free consultation and here at Scura, Wigfield, Heyer, Stevens & Cammarota, LLP as we handle a wide variety of cases and we would be glad to assist you.
In the event a dog bite case does go to trial, the Judge will give the following jury instruction to the Jury concerning the case:
STATUTORY OWNER - DOG BITE LIABILITY (N.J.S.A. 4:19-16) (12/09)
Plaintiff, ___________________, alleges that he/she was injured as a result of a bite from a dog owned by the defendant, __________________.
The liability of an owner of a dog is one imposed by statute, namely N.J.S.A. 4:19-16, which in its pertinent parts reads as follows:
The owner of any dog which shall bite a person while such person is on or in a public place, or lawfully on or in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, shall be liable for such damages as may be suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of such dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.
[The remaining part or parts of the statute should be charged where applicable.]
For the purpose of this section, a person is lawfully upon the private property of such owner when he/she is on the property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this state or the laws or postal regulations of the United States, or when he/she is on such property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner thereof.
In order for you to find the defendant, _____________ liable, the plaintiff, ______________, must establish by a preponderance of the evidence the following elements:
- 1. That the defendant, ___________________, was the owner of the dog in question;
- 2. That the plaintiff, ___________________, was on or in a public place or lawfully on or in a private place, including the property of the defendant, and finally
- 3. That the dog did bite the plaintiff while in such a place.
If you find that the plaintiff, __________________, has failed to establish any of the foregoing elements, your verdict will be in favor of the defendant, _____________.
In deciding whether the plaintiff was on or in a public place or lawfully on or in a private place, including the property of the defendant, you should note that anyone whose presence is expressly or impliedly permitted on the property is entitled to the protection of the statute I have just read; the permission extends to all areas which the plaintiff may reasonably believe to be included within its scope.
If you find that the plaintiff, ___________________, has established each of the foregoing elements, your verdict will be in favor of the plaintiff, _________________.
NOTE TO JUDGE
You will note that the statute imposes liability on an owner, regardless of the former viciousness of such dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.
If you conclude in favor of the plaintiff, ___________, you must then proceed to the question of damages.
Dog Bite Liability — Plaintiff’s Comparative Negligence/Burden of Proof
In a case such as this where the defendant has raised the negligence of the plaintiff as a defense, the defendant has the burden of proof. This means that the defendant has the burden to prove plaintiff’s “unreasonable and voluntary exposure to a known risk.” This means that the plaintiff “knew” the dog had a propensity to bite either because of the dog’s known viciousness or because of the plaintiff’s deliberate acts intended to incite the animal. For example, one who beats or torments a dog has no call upon the owner if in self-defense the dog bites.
Conclusion-Dog Bites Are Subject to Strict Liability
No matter the breed, if a dog bites someone in the state of New Jersey, the owner can be held responsible—no matter the intention. Whichever side you are on of a dog biting incident, after making sure everybody is ok and has proper medical assistance, you should seek legal representation. Our New Jersey lawyers are here to help and feel free to give us a call at 973-696-8391.
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