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When Fido Attacks: Defending Your Best Friend and Yourself Against Dog Bite Claims

04.26.19  |  By Keith J. Stevens

Recently one of my worst nightmares came true.  My pit bull terrier “bit” a young child on his waist.  While my dog was merely playing and did not intend any harm, I was petrified.  Could my dog be removed from my home or, worse, euthanized? Could I be sued for the bite? Thankfully, no action was taken against my dog or me.  However, those people who are unaware of the New York Dog Bite Laws may not be so lucky.

Sections 108, 121 and 123 of The Agriculture and Markets Law govern dog bites.  Municipalities generally cannot take any action with respect to an allegedly aggressive dog, no matter the dog’s breed, unless and until a judge determines that the complainant offered clear and convincing evidence demonstrating that the dog was dangerous.  In order to be deemed dangerous, the dog must: (1) attack a person or animal and cause injury or death; and/or (2) pose a serious imminent threat of serious physical injury or death. 

Fortunately for dog owners, there are available defenses to claims that a dog is dangerous.  A dog cannot be declared dangerous if the bite occurred while: (1) the complainant was committing a crime against the owner or on the owner’s property; (2) the complainant was tormenting, abusing or threatening the dog and/or the dog’s offspring; (3) the dog was responding to pain or an injury; or (4) the dog was protecting itself, its owners/custodians and/or a member of its household.

In the event your dog is found to be dangerous, that does not necessarily mean that the dog will be euthanized or even removed from your household.  While judges are required to order owners of a dangerous dog to neuter/spay and microchip the dog, the judge is not required to issue any additional penalties.  Even if the judge determines that additional action against your dog is warranted, such action can be limited to: (1) an evaluation of your dog by a certified behavioral expert; (2) secure humane confinement for an appropriate period of time; (3) the restraint of your dog via a leash and muzzle; and/or (4) the procurement and maintenance of a liability insurance policy for up to $100,000.  In order for the judge to order euthanasia or permanent confinement of the dog, the dog bite must have caused serious physical injury or death.

Now that you know how to protect your best friend, you should also know how to defend yourself against a potential claim resulting from a dog bite.  Notably, the strict liability of the owner or custodian of a dangerous dog who bites a person or another animal is limited to the cost of medical treatment.  In order to recover damages for pain and suffering or lost wages, a victim of a dog bite must demonstrate that the dog had a vicious or dangerous temperament before the bite and the owner knew or should have known of such temperament.  Vicious propensities under the law include a prior bite, growling, baring teeth and other actions which potentially endanger the welfare of persons or property.  The dog’s breed alone cannot be considered evidence of a vicious or dangerous temperament. Significantly, the owner of a dog who bites a person or another animal generally cannot be found liable for any damages beyond medical expenses in the event the dog did not previously exhibit vicious propensities.  

While you should always be aware of your surroundings and restrain your dog during walks and interactions with strangers, accidents do occur.  However, knowing your rights under the law limits the likelihood that such accidents will result in devastating consequences for you and your best friend.

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