When Are Dog Owners Liable for Accidents Caused

We tend to think of traffic accidents as something caused either by human error or bad weather. But what about a dog? Unrestrained animals pose just as much of a hazard to vehicle operators as a drunk driver or an icy road. So who is responsible when a dog darts out into traffic and causes an accident that seriously injures people?

In a recent decision, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, held that a dog owner was entitled to summary judgment in a case brought by a bicyclist who collided with the dog. The plaintiff sought compensation for her injuries, alleging the defendants were negligent in controlling their animal. But as the Fourth Department explained, it is not enough to simply accuse a pet owner of negligence. As with any hazard, the plaintiff must show a defendant had “actual or constructive knowledge” of the hazard, in this case the dog's “propensity to interfere with traffic.” Here, the plaintiff could not prove the defendants had any such knowledge.

The Fourth Department followed the New York Court of Appeals' 2004 decision in a case involving a dog who bit a 12-year-old child. In that case, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed the common law of New York, which has long held an owner is only liable if he or she is aware of an animal's “vicious propensities” that “might endanger the safety of persons and property of others in a given situation.” This does not mean there must be evidence a dog previously attacked someone. “Vicious propensities” may be demonstrated by evidence of aggressive behavior—barking, growling, displaying teeth—or anything that “reflects a proclivity to act in a way that puts others at risk of harm.”

Another key to establishing a pet owner's liability is the restraint, or lack thereof, used on the animal. Failure to keep a dog on a leash in an unfenced yard is more likely to give rise to the owner's liability than, say, a dog who is normally kept inside the house but accidentally escapes. The Court of Appeals has also suggested an animal intentionally kept as a “guard dog,” as opposed to a mere house pet, “may give rise to an inference that an owner had knowledge of the dog's vicious propensities.” Ultimately, however, an owner is not presumed to have knowledge their dog is dangerous simply because it likes to run around and bark—which, as the Court of Appeals acknowledged, “are what dogs do.”

Putting Your Best Case Forward

None of this means you should not attempt to hold dog owners liable if you have reason to believe their negligence contributed to a bicycle or car accident where you suffered serious injuries. But it does mean you need to work with an experienced New York accident attorney who can help ensure you present the strongest case possible to overcome the law's requirement to demonstrate “actual or constructive knowledge” of the animal's tendencies. Contact our office today if you have any questions.