The Dog Days of Litigation

Legal issues surrounding dog bites in New York City

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When personal injury attorney Pat James Crispi at Keogh Crispi was kindergarten age, he was attacked by a dog. The attack resulted in “a lot of initial bleeding but no emergency room treatment required,” and left him with strong opinions about dogs.
 
“When an owner has a dog and it charges at me, they say, ‘Oh, he’s just being friendly.’ Since when could you read a the dog’s mind?” Crispi says.
 
Fortunately, he adds, dog bite cases in New York City are uncommon. That could be thanks to the city’s strong leash laws and the petite breeds that local owners tend to prefer.
 
But, Crispi adds, “Things happen.”
 
If you or your pet are injured by someone else’s dog, “first seek proper medical attention,” says Eric J. Gottfried of personal injury firm Lefkowicz & Gottfried. “Do not resort to any ‘self-help.’ Don’t confront the pet owner, attempt to punish or even approach the animal.”
 
Under New York's dangerous dog statute, owners found liable for their dog’s attack are responsible for the medical bills of the victim, as well as monetary damages for pain and suffering, lost income and diminished future earning capacity.
 
“Make sure that any lawyer with whom you consult is not only experienced in personal injury cases, but has handled multiple pet owner liability claims,” says Gottfried.
 
Very few of these cases, in personal injury attorney Jason D. Friedman’s experience, end up in litigation; they are resolved. “If you are going to consult with a lawyer,” says the Smiley & Smiley attorney, “they’re not going to run out and file a lawsuit. They’re going to send a claim letter to the dog owner, and then dialogue with the homeowner’s or renter’s insurance provider on the phone. It’s much more cost-effective that way, and we’re usually able to negotiate a settlement rather than filing a formal lawsuit.”
 
Your lawyer must prove the dog’s owners neglected to take sufficient precautions against the foreseeable risk of their dog attacking someone. Negligence typically depends on what’s known as the “One Bite Rule,” which means, Friedman says, that “liability requires evidence, specifically, of ‘vicious propensities’—which is fancy talk for, ‘Did the dog do this before?’”
 
Gottfried explains, “Some courts require lunging, baring teeth, or more. Some have considered a dog that merely jumps up on strangers to be enough.” Barking, growling, snapping or chasing can all be considered evidence that a dog is dangerous, depending on the appellate district.
 
But if no evidence of prior aggressive behavior can be found, “the first person to get bitten by a dog is out of luck,” Friedman says. “Numbers two, three and four have a case. With number one, maybe the dog was startled, maybe you reached out the wrong way.”
 
And, of course, context is crucial. A dog is considered dangerous only if it bites without justification. If you were provoking Rover, it’s not the owner’s fault if Rover bites you.

New York

Tips for Dog Owners

1. Keep your dog on a leash. “I always say that keeping your dog on a leash is like wearing a seat belt: It is an easy measure that can potentially prevent serious injury,” says Natalie Sedaghati of personal injury firm Ogen & Sedaghati.

 

2. Keep your pet trained, with all of its shots, and muzzled if necessary. Gottfried says, “A pet owner may have to simply keep its pet away from people or other pets entirely, in certain instances.”

 

3. Use extra precaution with a dog the city has labeled “dangerous.” “For example, if you keep a vicious dog in your back yard,” says Sedaghati, “and the cable guy happens to be working in the area and sets foot in the yard, the owner of the property or the owner of the dog could be liable. In this case, signage that would warn the cable line worker of the animal's presence could prevent the accident and help shield the owners from liability.”

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