We all love our pets, but sometimes they’re less loveable to others than they are to their owners. If your neighbor or friend has a dangerous animal, whether that’s an unusual species or an ordinary pet with aggressive tendencies, you might fear for your safety and that of your family. Your fear may be justified: many animal bites or scratches, even small ones, can result in serious impairments, illness, and even death. What can you do to mitigate your risk and protect your loved ones?
Dogs and Cats, Pigs and Bats
Although many dogs are friendly and well behaved around children and other animals, dog attacks are still very common. Even friendly dogs can unintentionally cause injuries, particularly to children who are well meaning but overly aggressive. Cats can also be unpredictably hostile or defensive, especially if startled or manhandled. In addition to the initial pain and damage, bites and scratches from dogs and cats can become infected and pose serious health risks to children and adults alike.
More and more people are keeping unusual animals in their home and on their property. New Jersey regulations define an "exotic mammal, bird, reptile or amphibian” as “any nongame species or mammal, bird, reptile or amphibian not indigenous to New Jersey” and a "potentially dangerous species” as “any exotic mammal, bird, reptile or amphibian or nongame …capable of inflicting serious or fatal injuries or that has the potential to become an agricultural pest, menace to the public health, or threaten indigenous wildlife populations.” Some of the species categorized as “potentially dangerous” are non-domestic dogs, baboons, monkeys, bears, non-domestic cats, Gila monsters, alligators, and ground squirrels. You must possess a permit from the Department of Environmental Protection to keep any kind of exotic or potentially dangerous animal, either as an individual owner or a dealer. Failure to hold a permit can result in fines up to $5,000.
If you have children, make sure you supervise them carefully when they interact with dogs, cats, and other animals, and teach them to ask permission from its owner before petting or touching any animal. If there is an animal in your neighborhood that frequently bothers your children or that you think poses a threat, make an effort to talk with the owner about your concerns before an injury occurs. If you suspect someone may be keeping exotic or potentially dangerous animals without a permit, contact the Department of Environmental Protection or, in an emergency situation, emergency services (911).
What Is an Owner’s Responsibility for Safety and Injury?
New Jersey has a specific and strict dog bite statute that says that if a dog bites someone, its owner is responsible for any and all injuries that directly result from the bite. This means that if you are bitten by a dog while you’re in a public place or lawfully on someone’s property, the owner is automatically liable for these injuries. This is true even if the owner used reasonable care to restrain the animal or to protect or warn others and the animal has never previously been violent or caused injury. This is called “strict liability.”
Owners of other animals owe a duty of care to persons who are permitted to be on their property. Property owners have a duty to exercise reasonable care for others’ safety on their premises and must provide adequate warnings to those entering the property where a hazard exists (like an exotic or potentially dangerous animal). If your neighbor owns an exotic or potentially dangerous animal that causes you injury, you may be able to recover damages in a premises liability case.
What Kind of Damages Are Recoverable?
An animal bite or attack may cause damage to vital organs, bruising, broken bones, severe lacerations, and more. Especially for children, these injuries can require extensive treatment to repair—possibly including plastic surgery and/or physical therapy. Animal attacks can also result in exposure to diseases like rabies; many victims will have to undergo an expensive and painful series of shots to protect against possible disease transmission. In the worst cases, animal attacks can lead to death. In addition to physical injuries, a victim of an animal attack can suffer emotional distress or post-traumatic stress (PTSD). They may also have long-term disabilities, physical limitations, or scars. These types of damages are all compensable under New Jersey personal injury law.
If an animal’s owner knew it would attack or if it had previously bitten or attacked someone, it could increase your recovery. An experienced attorney can explore the various factors that best determine how your particular injuries should be compensated and prepare the best possible claim submission to an animal owner's insurance company. In some cases, even if the attack occurred somewhere other than at the owner's home or property, their homeowner’s insurance may still be responsible for compensating you for your injuries. Although legislation has been proposed to require owners of exotic and potentially dangerous animals to carry additional insurance, this is not currently required in New Jersey.
When to Take Immediate Action
If you encounter an animal that appears to pose a danger to the community, call 911 or animal control. If you have been attacked or bitten, it’s vital to report an incident—both to preserve public safety and to ensure that you are able to pursue the appropriate recovery for your injuries. The state’s animal control division will conduct an investigation to determine what the appropriate action should be for the animal. It is also responsible for monitoring whether animals are suspected of carrying diseases such as rabies and recommending appropriate action and/or treatment.
If you have been attacked or bitten by an animal, you might worry that reporting the occurrence will result in the animal being euthanized (“put down”). That’s not necessarily the case in New Jersey. Upon reporting of an injury incident, animal control will examine the circumstances and determine what the appropriate action should be. If the animal has shown a pattern of viciousness or abuse, or the attack is particularly vicious, animal control may order it to be put down; this is not, however, a foregone conclusion.
If you’ve been injured by a dog bite or other animal attack, you must file any lawsuit within two years of the occurrence—even if your medical treatment is ongoing. An experienced New Jersey animal attack lawyer can assist you in initiating and investigating your injury case and in recovering fair compensation for your injuries. Contact the attorneys at the Mark Law Firm for a free consultation today.
 NJSA 4:19-16