New Jersey Dog-Bite Laws

Dog owners in New Jersey could be liable in a civil lawsuit if their animals hurt someone—but they may have legal defenses.

If you have a dog in New Jersey—or you may have a claim for a dog bite or other injury—it’s important to know about the state's laws on dog owners’ legal responsibilities when their animals hurt someone or have been aggressive. Read on for details.

When Dog Owners Are Strictly Liable for Bites

New Jersey, like most states in the U.S., has a “strict liability” law that makes a dog’s owner liable in a civil lawsuit when the animal bites someone, as long as the victim was on public property or was legally on private property when the incident happened. It doesn’t matter whether the owner knew the dog had ever been vicious before. (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 4:19-16.)

As long as the victim was bitten, the owner may have to pay damages for all of the injuries, even if some of them resulted when the dog jumped on the victim or attacked in other ways. (Gross v. Dunham, 221 A.2d 555 (N.J. App. 1966).

When New Jersey Dog Owners Are Careless

Dogs can certainly injure people without actually biting them, such as by knocking someone over or chasing a motorcycle and causing an accident. In situations like that, the strict liability statute won’t apply. But a victim who can prove that the incident resulted from the dog owner's negligence might still be able to receive compensation for the injuries.

In a negligence claim, the injured person must prove that:

  • the owner had a duty to take reasonable care to control the dog's behavior
  • the owner failed to meet that duty ("breached" it, in legalese), and
  • as a result of that failure, the dog caused harm to the injured person.

A dog’s history of aggressive or troublesome behavior may be important in a negligence claim, because it helps the court determine what measures are "reasonable" for the owner to take. For instance, if a dog has never chased or attacked people before, it may be enough control if the owner walks the dog with a leash. But when a large dog has a history of trying to attack strangers, a court may conclude that the owner didn’t use reasonable care if the dog wasn’t also muzzled in public, or if the owner allowed a child to hold the leash. If even a friendly dog has a habit of jumping on children, its owner may be negligent if it keeps the animal on a long chain in an unfenced yard where a child could enter and approach the dog (see Jannuzzelli v. Wilkins, 385 A.2d 322 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1978).

Whether the injured person sues the owner for negligence or under the dog-bite law, the lawsuit must be filed within two years after the injury (N.J. Stat. Ann § 2A:14-2).

New Jersey’s Dangerous Dog Laws

New Jersey has a civil procedure for controlling dangerous dogs (N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 4:19-22—4:19-32). The process generally starts when an animal control officer believes that a dog is a serious threat after an unprovoked attack on a person or another animal. After impounding the dog, the officer will notify the owner and the court. After a hearing, if the court decides that the animal is potentially dangerous (for reasons spelled out in the law), it will order the owner to meet certain conditions, including:

  • getting a special license
  • putting warning signs on the property, and
  • keeping the dog in a locked enclosure (with specific requirements) or on a strong leash with a muzzle.

An owner who doesn’t obey the order will be fined up to $1,000 for each day of the violation.

If the court finds that the dog is vicious because it seriously injured someone (without being provoked) or was involved in organized dog fighting, the animal will be destroyed.

Defenses to New Jersey Dog Bite Claims

A dog owner facing a civil lawsuit for dog bite or other dog-related injuries may have one or more legal defenses, including:

  • Trespassing. New Jersey’s strict liability statute won’t apply if the victim wasn’t on private property legally. Under the law, it’s not trespassing when someone is carrying out a legal duty (like delivering mail) or has been invited on the property. In a lawsuit based on negligence, courts may or may not bar compensation because the injured person was trespassing. (Read more details about a dog owner’s legal defenses.)
  • Shared blame. The owner could argue that the injured person bore some of the responsibility for the incident—for instance, by provoking the dog into attacking. Under New Jersey’s “comparative negligence” rule, a victim who was more at fault than the dog owner won’t receive any compensation for the injury. But if the victim’s share of the blame was 50 percent or less, the compensation will simply be lower in direct proportion to the percentage of fault. (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:15-5.1.) New Jersey courts have held that the comparative negligence law applies in lawsuits based on the state’s dog-bite statute as well as negligence cases (see Budai v. Teague, 515 A.2d 822 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. 1986)).

Speaking with a Lawyer

If someone is suing you over a dog bite or other injury that your dog supposedly caused, you should consider speaking with a personal injury lawyer. An attorney experienced in this area can explain how New Jersey law applies to your situation, what defenses you might have, and how to protect your rights. If you’re dealing with dangerous-dog proceeding or a court order to destroy your pet, it might be helpful to consult with an animal law attorney.

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