In Hastings v. Suave, a fascinating decision that was rendered earlier this year, New York's Court of Appeals imposed liability on a property owner when his animal wandered out through a broken fence and into the middle of a roadway, causing a car accident.
Seems like a fairly straightforward case of negligence, no?
Perhaps, but believe it or not, the Court actually had to sidestep its own precedent in order to reach this result.
As noted in "Why Proving a Dog Bite Case in New York Isn't So Easy," the gereral rule in New York was - and remains - that the owner of an animal will not be held liable in negligence unless the plaintiff can prove that the owner had prior notice of the animal's vicious propensities.
So, here's the question: How would New York's courts view it if the case involved a domestic pet wandering into a roadway instead of a farm animal? Alternatively, how would the courts view a negligence case brought against an animal owner which was predicated on the animal getting into people's way causing an accident rather than the animal's aggressive behavior? These are precisely the questions that one of New York's intermediate appellate courts took up in Doerr v. Goldsmith.
In a decision that was handed down on October 3, New York's Appellate Division, First Department handed down a split decision. The majority held as follows:
"Because of the Bard/Petrone rule, it had been virtually impossible for people injured by animals to recover if they could not establish the defendants' knowledge of the animals' vicious propensities. Indeed, even if the injury was not caused by "vicious" behavior, no remedy existed ...
"Recently, however, the Court of Appeals revisited Bard and Petrone when it decided an appeal of Hastings (94 AD3d 1171). In reversing the grant of summary judgment to the defendants, the Court recognized that an accident caused by an animal's "aggressive or threatening behavior" is "fundamentally distinct" from one caused by an animal owner's negligence in permitting the animal from wandering off the property where it was kept (21 NY3d 122, 125 ). The Court stated that the consequence of a blanket rule against negligence claims in cases where animals displayed no vicious propensities "would be to immunize defendants who take little or no care to keep their livestock out of the roadway or off of other people's property" (id.).
"We recognize that the Hastings Court did not decide whether to apply the holding to dogs at that time. However, that should not be an impediment to denying summary judgment in this case. That is because this case is of an entirely different ilk than Hastings, Bard and Petrone. It is not about the particular actions of an animal that led to a person's injury. Rather, it is about the actions of a person that turned an animal into an instrumentality of harm."
Not surprisingly, there was a vigorous two-judge dissent arguing the case should have been dismissed, stating:
"[T]he Court of Appeals limited its decision to farm animals and made clear that until such time as it addresses the issue, the strict liability rule still applies to cases involving household pets. Accordingly, this Court should adhere to the established rule that New York does not recognize a common-law negligence cause of action to recover damages for injuries caused by a pet dog."
Especially considering the two-judge dissent, I suspect the Court of Appeals will have to weigh in on this decision.