Dog Bites in New York Part 1: “I have been bitten by a dog, can I sue its owner?”

While the answer to the question of “can I sue” is undoubtedly yes.  The real question is whether you can recover from the dog’s owner.  And the answer to that is: it depends.

There are two different ways to recover damages from the owner of a dog and, each has its own set of elements.  First, pursuant to New York’s Agriculture and Markets Law § 123(10), the owner of a “dangerous dog” is “strictly liable” for the medical costs associated with the dog bite.

The statute defines a “dangerous dog” as “any dog which (i) without justification attacks a person, companion animal, farm animal or domestic animal and causes physical injury or death or (ii) behaves in a manner which a reasonable person would believe poses a serious and unjustified imminent threat of serious physical injury or death to one or more persons, companion animals, farm animals or domestic animals or (iii) without justification attacks a service dog, guide dog or hearing dog and causes physical injury or death.”

The statute defines an “owner” as any person “who harbors or keeps any dog.”

If you wish to recover more than just for your medical bills, you must make a different showing.

In order to hold a dog owner liable for damages that you have suffered from a dog bite, you must establish two things.  First, you must prove that the animal has “vicious propensities” and, second you must show that the owner had knowledge of the dog’s “vicious propensities”.  The law in the State of New York as it relates to establishing liability for a dog bit is surprisingly old and, dates back to a case in 1816.  A legal precedent that is nearing its 200th year and, astonishingly still remains as important as it did on the day it was decided.  Very few things maintain their relevance for 200 years and, New York’s dog bit law is one of them.  Whether the rules spelled out in 1816 are in need of change is not the subject of this blog but, will be examined at a later date.

So, what are “vicious propensities”?  This requires a look back to the year 1868, the year it was explained by the courts that vicious propensities include the “propensity to do any act that might endanger the safety of the persons and property of others in a given situation.”  Dickson v. McCoy, 39 N.Y. 400 (1868).

If you can establish that the dog has “vicious propensities” (which will be explained in a later blog) then, you must establish that the dog owner knew or should have known of the dog’s vicious propensities.  This is somewhat like a negligence cause of action.

But, establishing that the dog’s owner knew of the dog’s vicious propensities (which is not required in order to recover medical bills) can be a pitfall for your lawsuit.  And, there are many cases in which a vicious or dangerous dog has attacked someone but, liability was not established because, the owner did not know and did not have a reason to know that their dog had a vicious propensity.

However, if you can establish that the dog had vicious propensities and that the owner knew or should have known of these vicious propensities, damages for pain and suffering, medical bills, lost wages and, even punitive damages might be recoverable.