Understanding the Limits of New Jersey’s Strict Liability Dog Bite Statute

U.S. laws vary greatly about dog owners’ liability for injuries the animal inflicts on other people. Many states impose strict liability, which means an owner is automatically responsible if the attack occurs on public property, or on private property as long as the victim was not trespassing. New Jersey follows this rule, but there is a significant limitation on what damages a victim can recover.

New Jersey’s dog bite statute calls for strict liability to apply whether or not the dog had a known propensity for viciousness or a history of prior attacks. It does not matter whether or not the owner took efforts to restrain the dog despite having knowledge of its potential for viciousness. All that need be shown is that the victim was lawfully present on the premises, either as an invited guest or as a licensee, such as a postal worker or utility worker. A bite victim can recover compensation for medical expenses, lost wages and other losses related to the bite.

However, the statute speaks only of injuries resulting from the dog bite itself, not of related injuries suffered in the attack. For example, a large dog might knock down the victim, causing impact injuries to the head or other body parts. The victim might also suffer emotional trauma due to the attack. Since these damages are not specifically the result of the bite, they may be outside the limits of strict liability.

To recover for damages not covered by the statute, the victim must prove negligence by the dog’s owner or by the owner of the property where the dog is kept. Negligence means the owner failed to take reasonable precautions to restrain the dog, such as leashing or fencing, or to warn other people about its dangerous propensities.

When negligence is alleged, the victim’s own conduct becomes relevant. This includes whether the victim in any way provoked the dog. If so, the victim could be found comparatively negligent, which would proportionately reduce any damages recoverable from the owner. Also relevant in a negligence claim is whether the dog was acting in defense of the property or of its owner.

By contrast, under the dog bite statute, provocation by the victim or alleged defense by the dog does not affect strict liability as long as the victim was not a trespasser.

In most cases of dog attacks, both strict liability and negligence will be factors. The injuries stemming from bite itself may be lesser in degree than the other injuries sustained. Harm caused by falling to the ground can be quite severe and can result in extensive pain and suffering. Emotional distress can be significant and lifelong in effect.

Seigel Law in Ridgewood represents victims of dog attacks throughout northern New Jersey in personal injury claims. Call us at 201-444-4000 or contact us online to schedule your free initial consultation.

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