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That Bites! Dog Owner Liability Under New Jersey Law.

Do you own a dog?  According to, “exactly 17,561” people own dogs in New Jersey.  Has your dog ever bitten someone?  There are numerous reported and unreported court decisions involving dog bite claims.  According to, the average payout on such claim is $26,000.  This article will discuss potential owner liability for dogs that bite. 

The Bad News.

The unfortunate dog owner who finds themselves defending a claim by a dog bite victim are usually not happy campers.  This is because the law of New Jersey concerning dog bite liability is very strict against dog owners and provides, in part:

The owner of any dog which shall bite a person while such person is on or in a public place, or lawfully on or in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, shall be liable for such damages as may be suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of such dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness. (emphasis added) N.J.S.A. 4:19-16.  [Unofficial Translation:  If your dog bites someone, you are probably screwed].

There is a false belief that New Jersey subscribes to the “one bite rule” which, depending upon the circumstances, provides a dog owner with a pass from liability for the first time his/her dog bites someone.  As set forth above, however, the “one bite rule” in no longer the law of New Jersey.  In the legal world, the combination of “shall be liable” and “regardless of” is tantamount to “strict liability”, virtual guarantying that the dog owner will be responsible for the injuries inflicted by his/her dog. 

In order to establish liability in dog bite case, the bite victim need only establish (i) that the dog is, in fact, owned by the defendant; (ii) that the bite victim was in a public place [i.e. a park], or lawfully on or in a private place [i.e. a backyard or a home]; and (iii) that the bite victim was bitten while in that public or private place.  Depending upon the extent of the bite victim’s injuries, liability could run from the $1,000s (in minor bite cases) to the $1,000,000s (in more horrific or even fatal cases).

The “Good” News.

Despite the doom and gloom above, in certain instances there are defenses available to dog owners to reduce or escape liability for the damages sustained by a dog bite victim.  One such defense relates to a dog bite victim who was an “independent contractor”, such as a dog groomer, walker, sitter or other caregiver.  In such cases, an owner may argue that the victim “assumed the risk” of getting bitten by the dog in exchange for payment and with knowledge of the danger.  Such a defense, however, is not absolute and will normally not apply to persons providing “part-time” services [i.e. your dog-sitting neighbor].

Another defense, inferred from the language of the statute, is in the case of a trespasser.  As stated above, a bite victim must prove that he/she was “lawfully” in the private place.  Thus, for example, in the event a door-to-door solicitor was bitten by a dog on your property, the owner may assert that the victim was trespassing and, therefore, unlawfully on the premises.  This defense, however, is unlikely to apply to public service [i.e. mailman] or utility workers [i.e. meter readers], even if you are not home, because they are usually deemed to have your “implied” consent to be on your property to perform their task. 

A third defense involves the “unreasonable and voluntary exposure to a known risk” on the part of the bite victim.  For example, if the victim teases, beats or otherwise torments the dog, and gets bitten as a result, the dog owner may have a good defense under New Jersey’s Comparative Negligence statute.

The bottom line is that, unless a very solid defense is available, a New Jersey dog owner can expect to pay for the injuries inflicted upon another by his/her dog.