New York has an unusual system when it comes to legal responsibility for harm caused by dogs, combining elements of:
New York owners—and anyone who's been harmed by someone else's pet—should understand both these rules and the state's approach to identifying and dealing with dangerous dogs.
New York defines a dangerous dog as a canine that:
(NY Agric. & Mkts. Law § 108(24).) A dog can be found "dangerous" either through a special hearing process or in a civil lawsuit brought by the victim of an attack.
New York's Consolidated Laws (the state's name for its civil code) include a section titled "Dangerous Dogs" that lays out the rules for identifying and controlling dogs that pose a threat to people and other animals. (NY Agric. & Mkts. Law § 123.) In this context, a "dangerous dog" is one that a judge has found to be dangerous after evaluating evidence presented at a hearing.
Anyone who sees a dog attack a person, pet, or farm animal can report the incident to their local animal control officer or to the police. If a child witnesses the attack, an adult can make the report on the child's behalf.
The officer who receives the report is required to either:
An officer who agrees that a dog is probably dangerous must file the complaint. Whether it's filed by the officer or by a private citizen, the complaint asks a judge to hold a hearing to decide if the dog is dangerous, and to issue any orders necessary to protect the public. (NY Agric. & Mkts. Law § 123.)
At the hearing, the burden is on the person bringing the complaint to prove with "clear and convincing evidence" that the dog is dangerous.
A judge who thinks there's a good chance the dog might be dangerous can have the animal impounded temporarily until final decisions after the hearing.
Keep in mind that there are times when a judge won't deem a dog dangerous even if it has seriously injured or killed a person or animal. New York law provides a full list of situations that excuse a dog's behavior. Generally speaking, though, a dog won't be deemed dangerous if it was:
(NY Agric. & Mkts. Law § 123.) One of the purposes of a hearing is to decide if a dog's behavior was unacceptably dangerous, or a justifiable response to the situation it was in.
If a judge decides after a hearing that a dog is dangerous, the government can impose rules designed to protect the public.
A dangerous dog must be neutered or spayed and microchipped.
The judge can also order the dog to be:
In the worst cases—where a dog has killed or badly injured a person, or has a history of serious attacks on people or animals—the judge can order that a dog be euthanized. (NY Agric. & Mkts. Law § 123(3).)
A judge who decides that a dog is dangerous can impose requirements and penalties on the owner.
The owner must pay the medical expenses of people and animals injured by their dangerous dog. (We'll talk below about a victim's other option for recovering their medical expenses.) A judge can also order an owner to carry up to $100,000 in liability insurance to cover any future harm caused by the dangerous dog. (NY Agric. & Mkts. Law § 123(2)(e).)
In addition, once a dog has been deemed "dangerous," its owner could face criminal charges for future incidents:
(NY Agric. & Mkts. Law §§ 123(8)-(9).) These criminal penalties for a second attack don't apply in all circumstances. Even a dangerous dog is sometimes allowed to bite or kill an attacker to stop a serious crime like murder or kidnapping.
As we'll discuss below, New York doesn't permit victims to file negligence lawsuits against dog owners. But owners can still be fined by the government if their negligence leads to an attack.
An owner can be fined $400 for negligently allowing their dog to bite and injure a person, a pet, a service animal, or a farm animal.
The fine goes up to $1,500 if the owner's negligence results in their dog biting and seriously injuring someone. Fines can be reduced by any amount the owner pays directly to the victim to cover medical expenses, lost earnings, and other damages. So, for example, if an owner is fined $1,000, and the victim has $600 in damages, the owner could choose to cover those damages and pay the remaining $400 to the government. (NY Agric. & Mkts. Law §§ 123(6)-(7).)
An owner who disagrees with a court's decision that a dog is dangerous has 30 days to file an appeal asking a higher court to overturn or modify the original ruling. If the owner appeals a euthanasia order, the order is put on hold until a final decision is reached. (NY Agric. & Mkts. Law § 123(5)(a).)
The hearing process for potentially dangerous dogs is focused on public safety. That's why it's sometimes a local government, and not someone who was injured by the dog, arguing that the dog should be deemed "dangerous."
But someone who's been harmed by a dog has the option of filing a personal injury lawsuit against the dog's owner, or anyone else who was legally responsible for the dog's behavior. In a civil suit, the plaintiff is asking for money to compensate for their damages.
As we've discussed, "strict liability" means that an owner is responsible for damage done by their dog even if the damage wasn't caused by the owner's carelessness. For example, under strict liability, an owner would be responsible for a bite even if they did everything a good owner would do to protect people from their dog.
New York's rules for dog-attack lawsuits use strict liability in two situations.
Like many states, New York uses a version of the so-called "one-bite rule," under which an owner can only be liable if they knew that their dog might be dangerous. In New York, an owner is strictly liable for all damage caused by their dog's "vicious propensity," but only if they were aware of that propensity.
New York's rule comes from a case called Bard v. Jahnke. In Bard New York's highest court severely restricted the situations in which a victim can recover all of their damages after they're hurt (or have their property damaged) by a dog or other domestic animal. Under Bard, an owner isn't liable at all unless:
This rule imposes strict liability on, for example, an owner whose dog bites and injures someone after several previous near-misses where it snapped at people without being provoked.
But it doesn't impose any liability at all in some situations where it might seem reasonable to hold the owner responsible. For example, New York rejected liability for an owner who tied his dog's leash to an unsecured bicycle rack, which then tripped and injured a pedestrian when the dog ran away with the bike rack trailing behind. In many jurisdictions, that kind of carelessness would allow the victim to file a successful negligence lawsuit, but New York's rule works differently.
New York courts also rejected any liability for an owner who disobeyed a local leash law, which allowed his dog to chase a mail carrier who was then injured trying to run away. Many states would have found the owner negligent automatically in a situation like this one. But New York's highest court ruled in the owner's favor, finding that the owner couldn't be held liable because he didn't have any reason to know his dog might be vicious or dangerous.
Even the victim of a serious dog bite in New York wouldn't be able to recover all of their damages unless they could show that the owner knew their dog could be vicious.
The second way that strict liability applies to dog-caused injuries has to do with medical costs. Specifically, New York's civil code makes owners strictly liable for medical costs if their dog injures a person, a pet, or a farm animal. (See the sidebar for some details on how this law works.)
This rule addresses some of the potential unfairness of the common law approach, because it means an owner can sometimes be required to pay a victim's medical bills even if they didn't know their dog might be vicious.
Bear in mind, though, that this strict liability rule only compensates a victim for their medical costs. Compensation for other damages—including things like lost wages and compensation for pain and suffering—are still only available if the dog owner knew about the vicious propensity that led to the victim's injury.
It's also important to remember that, even under strict liability, an owner is only liable for unjustified attacks. As we discussed earlier, the law can excuse a dog's behavior if it's been provoked or is acting to defend itself, its owner, or others.
Sometimes someone other than the owner can be held legally responsible if their in-the-moment carelessness allows a dog to injure someone. While lawsuits against owners
For example, in a 2020 case New York's highest court decided that a veterinary clinic could be held liable for failing to protect a customer in its waiting room from a dog being treated at the facility. The court didn't require the plaintiff to prove that the clinic's staff knew the dog might be vicious. The court reasoned that the clinic owed a duty of care to its customers, and that its employees should have understood that any dog at the vet might be under stress and at greater risk of acting out.
On the other hand, in some cases a victim can only win a negligence suit if the defendant knew—or should have known—that the dog had a vicious propensity. This rule has been applied to landlords, who can be sued for negligence if, for example, they know a tenant has a dangerous dog and don't do anything to notify or protect other tenants and visitors.
In New York the statute of limitations for personal injury lawsuits is three years. (NY C.P.L.R. Law § 214.) That means the victim of a dog attack has three years from the date of the incident to file a lawsuit against the owner or anyone else who might be legally responsible. Of course, someone who thinks they may be entitled to compensation for injuries or property damage is better off pursuing their legal options well before the statute of limitations approaches.
As we've seen, New York state's dog laws can sometimes get complicated. And, in addition to these statewide laws, municipalities have a lot of latitude to make and enforce their own animal control and licensing rules. If you have questions about how these laws apply to your situation, you might find it helpful to work with a local attorney with experience handling these kinds of cases. As you get started, make sure you know what to ask so you can find the right lawyer for your case.