Recent dog bite case out of New York draws attention to flaws in law

Does New York's dog bite law protect dog owners or victims?

Marley & Me, Lassie, Paw Patrol, Milo and Otis...the list of heartwarming dog tales could go on and on. Although many of these stories are not far from reality, there are cases when man's best friend bites. Whatever the cause of the attack, whether the result of poor ownership or a stressful situation that leads to an honest accident, when a dog bites the injuries can be severe. In these cases, the victim likely expects the owner will cover all costs associated with the attack.

Unfortunately, this expectation is not always met.

When are owners liable for dog attacks?

Liability in these situations is generally guided by state law. In New York, state law provides for civil penalties in situations when a dog bites another. If the bite is deemed to cause physical injury, the civil penalty should not exceed $400. Physical injury is defined as causing impairment of physical condition or causing substantial pain to the victim. If the bite results in serious physical injury, the fine is set at not more than $1,500. Serious physical injury is defined as a bite that results in the "substantial risk of death, or which causes death or serious or protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ."

If the animal responsible for the attack was deemed dangerous, the owner is charged with a misdemeanor. A dangerous dog is essentially defined as one that attacks a person without justification or has exhibited behavior that a reasonable person would deem as threatening to others.

How does New York's law work in an actual case?

The definitions above may appear at first glance to provide an adequate amount of protection to victims of dog bites. However, the reality of the application of these laws may be disappointing. A recent case highlights this issue.

The case, Scavetta v. Sechsler , involves a dog owner, Stuart Wechsler, who attached a dog to an unsecured bicycle rack. The dog became frightened and began to run through the town. The dog hid underneath a vehicle and Gregory Scavetta stopped to attempt to provide some assistance. The dog began running again, hitting Scavetta with the bicycle rack. The collision resulted in serious injury to the victim's leg, requiring treatment at a nearby hospital.

The victim attempted to hold the owner accountable for the costs associated with the injury under the legal theory of negligence. Essentially, the victim claimed it was careless to tie the dog up in the manner the owner chose and that this carelessness resulted in the victim's injury. Although the court agreed that the action was careless, it did not hold the owner responsible. Instead, the court stated that the law as written would require that the animal exhibit vicious propensity in order for the lawsuit to be successful. As noted in a recent piece in the Times Square Chronicles, the court noted that current law was "rigid and archaic" and "contrary to common sense and fairness."

Such comments may provide incentive for reform. Perhaps the case will fuel a legislative proposal to adjust the current law, bringing it up to date and writing it in a manner that would better ensure owners act wisely with their pets.

What can victims of dog attacks learn from this case?

First, it is important to note that this case is about an attack that does not involve a bite. Dogs can cause injuries in many ways. Although the negligence claim did not prove successful for the victim, a claim based on strict liability or another legal theory may be more favorable. Second, the case also highlights the need for legal counsel. Navigating these issues can be difficult, but an experienced attorney can better ensure your interests are protected.