New Jersey has laws that address “potentially dangerous” dogs and “vicious” dogs. The two types are different, and the status of each type of dog must be declared by a municipal court. 

A court may declare a dog as “vicious” if the dog killed or caused serious bodily injury to a person or engaged in fighting activities. The standard for such a finding is clear and convincing evidence.  If the dog was provoked, that can be used as a defense.  And if a dog is declared by the court as vicious, the consequence is humane destruction. 

A court may declare a dog as “potentially dangerous” based on a variety of circumstances:

  • the dog caused bodily injury to a person during an unprovoked attack;
  • the dog poses a serious threat of bodily injury or death to a person;
  • the dog severely injured or killed another domestic animal and poses a serious threat of bodily injury or death to a person;
  • the dog poses a threat to another domestic animal, or has been trained, encouraged, or a number of other elements, to engage in unprovoked attacks upon persons or domestic animals.

If the dog was provoked in causing bodily injury to a person or if, in severely injuring or killing a domestic animal, the animal was the aggressor, that can be used as a defense.  The clear and convincing evidence standard applies. There are also appeal rights from a decision.

When a dog is declared as potentially dangerous, certain requirements apply. For example, applying for a potentially dangerous dog license; displaying a warning sign on premises with certain specifications; and erecting an enclosure with specifications on where the dog is to be confined.  There is also a possible requirement to maintain liability insurance with certain specifics determined by the court.

In addition, there may be other requirements of an owner of a potentially dangerous dog.  For example, notifying authorities if the dog is at large or has attacked someone; notifying authorities of the death, sale, or donation of the dog; notifying a prospective owner that the dog has been declared potentially dangerous; and even notifying the authorities of the sale or donation of the dog to a person residing in a different municipality. 

The cost of a license for a potentially dangerous dog is high; it may be between $150 and $700 for the license and each renewal. There are fines for violations of the potentially dangerous dog requirements, such as impounding the dog and even humane destruction, if ordered by the court.

Municipalities have varying ordinances on this subject, which can include labeling an animal as a vicious dog if it has a two-bite history.  Some municipalities have ordinances that speak to specific breeds, such as Staffordshire or American Staffordshire Bull Terrier (commonly known as Pit Bull), and have specific requirements for keeping such a dog. Other ordinances may adopt the State law definition of a vicious dog or potentially dangerous dog, but also create a rebuttable presumption that a Pit Bull is a dangerous dog.

State law supersedes any municipal or local law, ordinance or regulation concerning vicious or potentially dangerous dogs or specific breeds of dogs.  Therefore, any inconsistent local laws on the subject may not be valid, depending upon the details of the provisions.

Also, did you know there are provisions in some insurance policies that exclude coverage for injuries caused by dogs, or that exclude coverage for injuries caused by certain breeds of dogs?   The breeds commonly excluded are Pit Bull, Rottweiler, Siberian Husky, Akita; Chow Chow; Doberman; Presa Canario, and German Shepherd. A policy may not have such an exclusion, or may have partial exclusions.  You should review your policy to determine how these laws and exclusions may affect you. 

If local dog ordinances and/or insurance exclusions have affected you, you should consult with legal counsel to ensure your rights are protected.  You also want to ensure that you have conformed with any statute of limitations or other issues that have significant legal consequences. 

The lawyers at Gebhardt & Kiefer are well versed in these matters.  Please feel free to contact us for a consultation at 908-735-5161. 

 

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.