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Dog Owners: Are You Aware of Your Liability for Dog Bites?

Jun 14, 2018 | Written by: Robert C. Ward, Esq. |

Many residents are not aware that in New Jersey there is a law that places liability on a dog owner.  Specifically, if your dog bites a person on or in a public place, or if the bite occurs while the person is lawfully on or in a private place, you may be liable![1]

This law creates strict liability, which means the owner is liable for damages, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the knowledge of such viciousness.

There is no requirement that the injured person prove any negligence of the dog’s owner. Liability exists even if the dog had no history of biting, and even if the owner took reasonable precautions to control the dog.

A person is considered lawfully on private property when she/he is there upon an express or implied invitation of the owner.  A person is also considered lawfully upon private property when present in the performance of any duty imposed by State law or by the postal regulations of the United States.

This strict liability rule, however, would not apply if the injured person provoked or incited the dog into attacking, or if the injured person had actual knowledge of the danger and voluntarily and unreasonably encountered the risk. Such circumstances would depend upon the facts of the occurrence.  

By way of hypothetical example, if a dog is chained or in a fenced enclosure, and a person is aware of the dog’s propensity to bite but still approaches the dog, the owner may have a legitimate defense to strict liability when the person is bitten.

The strict liability rule would not apply when the person injured is a trespasser on the property where the injury occurs. In that case, the dog owner’s responsibilities and the responsibilities of the injured person would involve negligence issues.  The duties of care applicable, depending upon all the facts, could involve a number of complex factors.

The strict liability rule may also not apply when the dog is under the care of a professional, such as a veterinarian or other person who cares for dogs. In such a case, a dog owner would have defenses involving negligence issues and the owner’s reliance upon the expertise of the professional, which may involve various complex factors.  Each of these cases is fact-sensitive and requires legal expertise. 

If you own a dog, it is important that you are versed in these laws and that you act responsibly to protect yourself, your pet, and your family. 

When shopping for a homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy, dog owners should ask questions about potential limitations and exclusions.  If your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy excludes your dog, you may be able to purchase a stand-alone animal liability policy that covers injuries caused by your pet.

[1] N.J.S.A. 4:19-16

Robert Ward

Robert C. Ward, Esq., is a senior partner with Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC.  Mr. Ward'spractice concentrates primarily on personal injury and general negligence litigation, with particular emphasis on motor vehicle accidentsconstruction accidents and defects, along with other types of varying general negligence. Mr. Ward regularly litigates issues concerning insurance coverage, including contractual indemnity and additional insurance issues and arbitrations. He lectures on various legal issues pertaining to insurance law and litigation. Mr. Ward also defends individuals in municipal court cases and served as a municipal prosecutor for more than ten years.