Guide to 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.

By , Legal Editor
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney (UC Berkeley School of Law)

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).

Under New Jersey's statute of limitations, bite victims must file a lawsuit within two years of the incident. (N.J. Stat. Ann § 2A:14-2.)

When New Jersey Dog Owners Are Liable for Non-Bite Injuries

Dogs can injure people without actually biting them, for example by knocking someone over or chasing a motorcycle and causing an accident. In situations like that, the strict liability statute won't apply.

But someone who was hurt by a dog without being bitten might still be able to receive compensation for their injuries. They must be able to prove either that:

  • the incident resulted from the dog owner's negligence, or
  • the owner knew (or should have known) that their dog had potentially dangerous habits.

Owner negligence. An owner can be held liable for non-bite injuries if the victim can show 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.

For example, an owner could be found negligent if they let their dog roam around off-leash and the dog runs up to someone and knocks them over.

Dangerous habits. An owner can also be held responsible for non-bite injuries if:

  • they know that their pet has habits that could be dangerous, and
  • someone winds up getting hurt because of those habits.

Like the law for dog bites we discussed above, this is a strict liability rule. When it applies, a victim can recover damages without having to prove that their injuries were the direct result of the owner's carelessness.

Dangerous habits include violent or aggressive behavior, like a tendency to try to attack strangers. But New Jersey law also makes owners strictly liable for tendencies that could seem playful or friendly, like a dog's habit of jumping on people because it's excited to see them. (DeRobertis v. Randazzo, 94 N.J. 144 (1983); Jannuzzelli v. Wilkins, 385 A.2d 322 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1978).

People who've suffered non-bite injuries are subject to the same statute of limitations as bite victims, and must file any lawsuit within two years of the incident. (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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