The Current State of Dog Bite Liability in New Jersey
Aug 25, 2021 | Written by: Share|
Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court analyzed the current state of a dog owner’s liability in Statute and Common Law for injuries to others from the bite of the owner’s dog. Goldhagen v. Pasmowitz (A-17-20) (084668), decided August 5, 2021. In Goldhagen, the plaintiff, a dog groomer, was bitten by an owner’s dog while grooming the owner’s dog. The plaintiff filed suit against the dog owner for Strict Liability under the NJ Dog Bite Statute N.J.S.A. 4:19-16 and for Common Law Negligence. The Appellate Court granted Summary Judgment to the dog owner, dismissing the Dog Bite Statute Strict Liability claims against the dog owner on the basis that the plaintiff as a dog groomer inherently assumed the risk of injury from a dog bite by the very nature of their conduct. The Appellate Court then affirmed the denial of the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment as to the Common Law Negligence claims because there were issues of material fact whether the plaintiff’s actions were mostly at fault for causing the dog to bite. The Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of the Dog Bite Statute Strict Liability claims against the dog owner and affirmed the denial of judgment for the plaintiff dog groomer as to the Common Law Negligence claims.
In analyzing the current state of the law, the Supreme Court noted the Legislature never intended the Doctrine of Assumption of the Risk to apply to the imposition of Strict Liability upon a dog owner under the Dog Bite Statute. Under the Act, a dog owner is strictly liable for injuries from the bite of the owner’s dog to persons lawfully at a public or private place, regardless of the injured party’s category or relationship to the dog or dog owner. (Emphasis added). Nonetheless, the dog owner retains the right under the statute to a liability set-off by the percentage of liability to which the injured person negligently caused the dog bite. Thus, the dismissal of the Statutory Strict Liability claims was an error of law requiring a remand of those claims for trial to consider the issue of whether the plaintiff’s actions were a proximate cause of the dog bite and if so to what extent.
Essentially, because the dog groomer’s negligence and extent of negligence were in dispute, the Court agreed with the denials of the dog groomer’s motion for judgment on the Common Law Negligence claims. Under Common Law, a person bitten by a dog may seek judgment for the injuries against the dog owner if the dog owner knew or should have known of the dog’s violent propensities, and the injured party was not more than 50% negligent in causing the dog bite. If the plaintiff cannot prove the dog owner possessed the requisite degree of knowledge of the risk posed by the dog, the plaintiff can obtain recovery if the dog owner was negligent in keeping the dog, and the injured party was not more than 50% negligent in causing the dog bite. The owner of a dangerous dog always owes a duty of ordinary care to an infant trespasser. Goldhagen, citing with approval DeRobertis v. Randazzo, 94 N.J. 144, at 158 (1983).
Under the circumstances, the owner of a dog that bites anyone while that person is lawfully at a public or private place, including that of the dog owner, is automatically 100% liable for injuries sustained from the bite, but may reduce or preclude liability for the injury based upon proofs the injured person was negligent. If the person bitten by the dog cannot prove liability under the Dog Bite Statue, the injured person retains the right at Common Law to obtain Judgment against the dog owner if a) the dog owner knew of the dog’s vicious propensities, or b) the dog owner was negligent in keeping the dog. In either situation, the injured person’s negligence may preclude or reduce the owner’s liability.