In a report published earlier today, the Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department, reversed a lower court’s ruling of summary judgment for the defendant in a case involving the negligent handling of a dog by its owners. The plaintiff in the case was riding a bicycle near the southern boundary of Central Park when he noticed the two defendants with their dog. Smith, the female defendant, called the dog to her from her boyfriend Goldsmith. As the dog crossed the road to join Smith, it was struck by the cyclist, who was unable to avoid it.
The cyclist sued the plaintiffs under a theory of negligence. In granting summary judgment for the defendants, it appears that the Supreme Court relied on an outdated theory of law that posited that an individual injured by an animal could not make a viable claim for negligence. Rather, recovering damages from an accident involving an animal would necessitate a showing of the animal’s “vicious propensities.” As such, the Supreme Court granted summary judgment for the defendants.
On appeal, the First Department disagreed with the reasoning set for by the Supreme Court. Citing a 2012 action that reached the Court of Appeals, the First Department reversed summary judgment. In Hastings v. Suave, the high Court stated that precluding any and all negligence claims against an owner for the actions of his or her animal “would be to immunize defendants who take little or no care to keep their livestock out of the roadway or off of other people’s property.” Although recognizing the fundamental differences between the case at bar and Hastings (in which a cow wandered from its property onto an adjacent farm), the Appellate Division stated that the actions of the owner are of most importance. If the actions of the dog’s owners “turned the animal into an instrumentality of harm,” then they could, in fact, have been held liable for negligence.