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Parent / Dog Owners Not Immune From Liability in Child Dog Bite Case, NJ Appeals Court Rules

German shepherd bites a man

Parents of a child attacked by the family dog are not immune from liability, a New Jersey Appellate Court recently ruled.

The ruling bears an important reminder that the strict liability element of New Jersey’s dog bite statute means that parents of children who suffer injuries from dog bites caused by the family dog are not protected by parental immunity.

About the Case

The case – Barkosky v. Weber’s Training School– involved a family who had adopted a rottweiler from a dog training school in Princeton, New Jersey. Two days after the dog was brought home, it attacked the family’s minor son while he was at home and being cared for by his grandmother. According to the claim, the dog shook the child from side to side “attempting to rip off his arm” and did not release him until a police officer arrived and struck the dog several times with his baton.

The family filed suit against Weber’s Training School and its owner, alleging that they:

  1. Were negligent;
  2. Falsely represented that the dog was “good with children and adults and that [the dog’s] previous owners had children.”
  3. Were aware that the dog has previously exhibited dangerous behavior and intentionally failed to disclose the dog’s “vicious propensities” and the fact that they had not given the dog a professional temperament test.

In response to the lawsuit, the defendants denied the allegations and filed a counterclaim against the child’s father and third-part complaint against the mother, claiming that the parents, as owners of the dog, were "primarily and wholly liable for any and all injuries and damages arising from the . . . dog bite attack” upon their son. The parents moved to dismiss the claims on the basis that they were precluded by New Jersey’s parental-immunity doctrine.

Lower Court Ruling

In its ruling, the lower court sided with the parents and dismissed the defendant’s claims that parental immunity does not eliminate the liability provisions in New Jersey’s dog bite statute – which imposes strict liability on the owners of dogs who cause injuries.

The lower court also noted that because the family’s claims were based on fraudulent misrepresentation and false advertisement related to their adoption of the dog, the case was not a dog bite case.

Appeal & Higher Court Ruling

The defendant dog training school and its owner appealed the ruling, arguing that case was in fact a dog bite matter, that claims brought under the dog bite statute are unaffected by the doctrine of parental immunity, and that the lower court erred in holding that parental immunity precluded their claims against the child’s parents.

In its ruling, the appellate court reiterated the three elements that must be proven for liability under the state’s dog bite statute. This includes proving that:

  1. The defendant is the owner of the dog;
  2. The dog bit someone; and
  3. The bite occurred while the person was in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the dog owner’s property.

When these three elements are shown, the court noted, the dog bite statute imposes strict liability on owners, regardless of whether the dog has displayed any previous aggressiveness or tendencies to attack. As a result, the court held that the lower court did err in its original ruling to dismiss the defendant’s claims against the parents.

Ruling Shows Importance of Strict Liability in Dog Bite Cases

While the appellate court did not issue any findings about the merits of either the plaintiffs’ or defendants’ claims in this case, its ruling does illustrate the scope of New Jersey’s strict liability dog bite statute.

As a law that is meant to hold dog owners liable for injuries caused by bites and attacks, New Jersey’s dog bite statute can be a powerful tool for dog bite victims seeking accountability and financial compensation for their damages. Because it imposes strict liability on dog owners, however, the law may also work against dog owner plaintiffs in rare cases where they seek liability for dog bite injuries against parties other than themselves.

Our attorneys at Levinson Axelrod, P.A. have extensive experience litigating dog bite cases and helping victims seek the justice and compensation they deserve. If you have questions about the state’s dog bite statute or a potential case of your own, call (732) 440-3089 or contact us online.