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Liability For Animal Attacks Expanded In New Opinion

A New York State judge in Nassau County recently ruled that a plaintiff can go to trial in a case where she was injured by a dog that was admittedly non-violent in the past and loved people.

The defendant in the case, Waldman v. Sangiray, had asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that his dog was friendly and had no history of violence towards people. However, the judge said there were still certain grounds upon which the plaintiff could keep her case alive.

Jacqueline Waldman, the victim in the case, was an 82-year-old woman who was walking with her grandson when the defendant's dog, "Louie", jumped on her at the edge of the defendant's property. Louie, a two-year-old Siberian Husky, put his paws on both of the woman's shoulders and knocked her down. Waldman alleged that Louie then rolled her over onto her back and kept her pinned to the ground for an entire hour. At one point, according to Waldman, the dog bit her arm.

Waldman suffered inflamed, ruptured, and lacerated tendons in her hand and wrist, necessitating surgery. She also had cuts on her face. 

The judge remarked, "there is no evidence in the record that Louie was anything but a friendly, rambunctious family pet, who was mainly kept outside and barked often". Furthermore, "Louie never had an incident where he growled, bared his teeth, bit, or lunged at anyone".

However, the dog did have a habit of jumping on people. The defendant testified that Louie would jump on his owners and on the defendant's in-laws. The defendant denied ever seeing Louie jumping on strangers though. Nonetheless, the judge concluded that a jury could fairly conclude that Louie was a "friendly jumper".

In New York State, dog owners can be held responsible for the injuries their dogs cause to humans and property. In order for the victim of a dog attack to prevail in court, the victim must show that the owner knew or should have known of the dog's "vicious propensities" before the attack and that the vicious propensities led to the alleged injuries. Collier v. Zambito, 1 N.Y.3d 444, 446-47 (2004).

If the plaintiff can show that a dog had vicious propensities, the owner is held strictly liable. That means the owner would be at fault regardless of whether he was negligent in the care of the dog on the actual day of the attack. This is because, as the judge in the Waldman case wrote, "the risk of injury from a dog known to have a propensity for causing injury is a risk society has deemed unacceptable".

Significantly, the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York State, has defined "vicious propensities" to include the "propensity to do any act that might endanger the safety of the persons and property of others in a given situation". Collier v. Zambito, 1 N.Y.3d 444, 446 (2004) (internal citations omitted).

It is the phrase "any act" that is at the heart of the judge's decision in the Waldman case. According to the judge, "dangerous" propensities is a more appropriate description of the state of the law in New York than "vicious" propensities. As he explained, "an animal that behaves in a manner that would not necessarily be considered violent or ferocious, but nevertheless reflects a proclivity to act in a way that puts others art risk of harm, can be found to have 'vicious' propensities."

For that reason, the defendant in the case can be held liable for any injury arising from Louie's propensity to jump on people. Significantly, however, the defendant cannot be held liable for Louie biting Waldman's arm because Louie did not have a history of violence towards people or property.

In reality, this will severely reduce the worth of Waldman's case since she claims her main injury and surgery was due to the bite, not Louie's initial jumping.

If you or a loved one has been the victim of a dog attack, please contact our office for a free consultation. 

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