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APPELLATE DIVISION AFFIRMS TRIAL COURT’S GRANT OF SUMMARY JUDGMENT TO DOG OWNERS IN PERSONAL INJURY CASE

November 05, 2018

ROBERT B. SPAWN reports on a recent unpublished decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

A recent New Jersey case involved a Plaintiff-dog groomer who filed a complaint against Defendants-dog owners after Defendants’ dog bit Plaintiff during the course of a grooming session.  At the trial level, Plaintiff claimed that Defendants were strictly liable for her injuries under the “dog-bite” statute, N.J.S.A. 4:19-16.  Plaintiff also claimed that Defendants were negligent in failing to control their dog and allowing the dog to bite her.  After both parties engaged in discovery, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment based on the factual record laid out below.

 

When Defendants first brought their dog to Plaintiff’s business in 2011, they informed Plaintiff that their dog was “a little problematic,” and Plaintiff interpreted this statement to mean that the dog did not like being groomed.  Indeed, Plaintiff had placed a muzzle on Defendants’ dog at the outset of six grooming sessions before Defendants brought their dog to Plaintiff’s business on June 6, 2013.  As she had done in the past, Plaintiff placed a muzzle on the dog, but, on this occasion, the dog suddenly pulled the muzzle off with his paw, rapidly turned his head around, and bit Plaintiff on her left arm.  Plaintiff was treated for ten puncture wounds at the hospital on the day of the incident and discharged that same day.  However, when Plaintiff awoke the next day, her arm was enlarged and discolored.  Accordingly, Plaintiff returned to the hospital for about six days, during which time she was treated with antibiotics and pain medication.  She was also forced to wear a soft cast on her injured arm for five additional weeks, and she was unable to work during that time.

 

The trial court judge, relying on Reynolds v. Lancaster County Prison, decided summary judgment in favor of Defendants.  In Reynolds, the Appellate Division held that an independent contractor who agrees to care for a dog could not assert a personal injury claim against a dog owner under N.J.S.A. 4:19-16 unless the dog owner “purposefully or negligently concealed a particular known hazard” from the independent contractor.  The trial court judge found that this principle applies to individuals working in the commercial dog-grooming business, such as Plaintiff.  The trial court judge also pointed out that Defendants had put Plaintiff on notice that their dog might bite while being groomed, as they specifically warned Plaintiff that their dog was “a little problematic” when first dropping him off at Plaintiff’s business.  Plaintiff, because she muzzled the dog on at least six occasions prior to the incident, was acutely aware of this risk.

 

The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s reasoning and affirmed summary judgment in favor of Defendants, holding that Plaintiff had sufficient warning that the dog might bite her while being groomed.  Additionally, the Appellate Division further discussed Reynolds, which announced the specific rule that a dog owner cannot be strictly liable for a veterinarian’s personal injuries if the dog owner simply drops her dog off at the veterinarian’s business and places her dog in the veterinarian’s care.  The Appellate Division asserted that the principles in Reynolds were not confined to veterinarians, as a dog groomer and a veterinarian—and indeed anyone going into business dealing with dogs—should be intuitively aware of the risk of dog bites.  Because any lay person can easily reach such a conclusion, the Appellate Division held, contrary to Plaintiff’s argument, that no expert testimony comparing the education, training, and experience of veterinarians and dog groomers was required to resolve the matter at hand.

 

Please contact Robert B. Spawn if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.