New York State is relatively lenient when it comes to imposing liability on dog owners in dog bite cases: an animal owner will be held liable for a dog bite when he knows or should have known about his animal’s vicious propensities and those propensities cause the plaintiff’s injuries. A recent decision from New York’s Second Department shows that New York’s relatively lenient standard is even more lenient when the defendant is a government-run animal shelter.
In Abrahams v. Mt. Vernon, the plaintiff was the mother of an infant who was attacked by a dog when visiting the back room of an animal shelter. In its motion for summary judgment, the City relied on its municipal status to argue that it could not be held liable. The court agreed, and dismissed the complaint against the City. In doing so, the court recognized that a municipality can only be held liable in this context if it had a special relationship with the plaintiff, which could only be proven if: (1) the municipality violated a statutory duty enacted to protect a specific class of persons; (2) it voluntarily assumed a duty on which the plaintiff justifiably relied to its detriment; or (3) it assumed control in the face of a known, blatant, and dangerous safety violation.
Because the City merely provided a governmental function designed to benefit the public at large, there was no special relationship and the City could not be held liable. In passing, the court noted that the City would not have been liable under the standard applicable to private persons either, as there was no evidence of vicious propensity for this particular dog.
Abrahams is a reminder that government often enjoys greater legal protection than those it governs. And both governments and private citizens who own dogs have greater protections from potential liability in New York than elsewhere in the United States. Thanks to Michael Gauvin for his contribution to this post. Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.