Beware: The Accountability of Dealing with Pets, Even if They Are Not Yours! (NY)
Traditionally, in New York, a pet owner is responsible for the known vicious propensities of their pets. But who is responsible when the pet in question does not belong to the owner at the time of the injury? This was addressed in the recent Court of Appeals decision in Hewitt v Palmer Veterinary Clinic, PC, N.Y.3d, 2020 WL 6163313 (2020). In this case, the plaintiff brought her cat into defendant’s veterinary clinic and remained in the waiting room to be seen. During this time, a veterinarian brought a dog who had just undergone surgery into the same waiting room. Upon seeing the cat, the dog escaped its collar and jumped at the plaintiff from behind, attempting to reach the cat.
The plaintiff alleged that the veterinary clinic had a duty to provide a safe waiting room and breached such a duty by allowing an agitated dog to enter the waiting room. Conversely, the veterinary clinic argued it had no prior knowledge of the dog’s dangerous propensities as it was not its owner and therefore, cannot be held liable.
Prior case law in New York has established that when a domestic animal causes harm, liability is determined by showing prior vicious propensities. Bard v. Jahnke, 6 N.Y.3d 592 (2006). Under the Bard rule, an animal may have vicious propensities even it behaves in a manner that would not necessarily be considered dangerous or ferocious if such behavior reflects “a proclivity to act in a way that puts other at risk of harm and such proclivity results in an injury.” This determination, specifically applicable to New York, strays from established precedent which provide that domestic animals may be dangerous under certain circumstances and owners must exercise reasonable care to prevent foreseeable harm.
With this controversial and unpopular rule, cases had yet to address, until now, whether a non-owner remains liable for injuries caused by animals when the non-owner is unaware of the animal’s vicious propensities.
The courts recent decision in Hewitt, created an exception to the Bard rule. It held that veterinary clinics have a specialized knowledge of animal behavior and can create circumstances that may give rise to a substantial risk of aggressive behavior. Therefore, veterinary clinics can be liable for failing to exercise reasonable care even without prior notice of an animal’s vicious propensities. Because this is limited to non-owners who are veterinarians, the question of other non-owners remains open for further interpretation.
The realm of animal liability continues to evolve. But with the continued popularity of owning various and sometimes odd domestic animals, it seems this area of law will continue to progress in future litigation.
Thank you to Gabriella Scarmato for her contribution to this post. Please email Georgia Coats with any questions.