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Town Liable for $150,000 for Failure to Protect Against Dog Attack

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Municipalities can be held liable for failing to protect a resident from dog attacks, as in the case of an 82-year old New York woman who recovered $150,000 when a neighbor's dog attacked her in her own yard.

A jury in Hamburg, NY, ruled against the municipality for negligently failing to control the dangerous dog after providing assurances of her safety.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in five dog bites result in serious injuries requiring medical attention.

  • There are 4.5 million American dog bite victims every year.
  • Two dog breeds accounted for 74% of the attacks that resulted in death: pit bulls and rottweilers.
  • Over 700 U.S. cities have adopted breed-specific laws since the mid 1980s, just after pit bulls (fighting dogs) began leaking into the general population.
A government entity may be liable to an injured person if he or she can establish a special relationship between the employees of the city and the individual.

After a neighbor's dog attacked her, the plaintiff, Celeste Swietlik suffered a severe wrist fracture that required two internal pins and three days of in-patient treatment.

In the past, Swietlik and a neighbor had filed eight complaints about the same dog. She claimed that the dog had attacked other neighborhood dogs and that, in one instance, it attempted to break through a glass door, to enter her house. She asserted that town wardens visited her home several times and assured her safety. In her complaint, she argued she justifiably relied on the official's assurances and the town assumed a duty to protect her.

She suffers residual pain and a near-total loss of her left wrist's functionality. She relies upon the assistance of relatives for performance of many of her everyday activities.

Special Duty Rule

A city can be liable for plaintiffs injuries under the special duty rule. This rule applies in cases where the local government fails to enforce animal control provisions and a  government officer or employee assumes a special duty to an individual .

Generally, municipalities are immune from suit similar to the state and federal governments. See H. Beau Baez III, Tort Law in the United States 62-63 (Roger Blanpain et al. eds. 2nd eds., 2014).

However, under the special duty rule a government entity may be liable to an injured person if he or she can establish a special relationship between the employees of the city and the person.

A special relationship may be established if the governmental entity:

  • Assumes a duty through promises or action to act on injured persons behalf.
  • The entity knew a failure to could lead to harm.
  • Some form of direct contact between the governmental entity officers or employees and the injured party.
  • The injured party justifiably relied on the governmental entities affirmative undertaking.

See Cuffy v. City of New York, 505 N.E.2d 937, 940 (1987). 

In the alternative, a special duty may be owed if the municipality was responsible for enforcing animal control provisions of the municipal code and failed to take action in response to violations.

Dog Owner's Liability

In most cases the dog’s owner is held liable for the injuries caused by their pets. In recent years, states have enacted statutes holding animal owners strictly liable for injuries caused by domestic animals. Some statutes are specific to dogs and cats, but others include livestock.

To be held strictly liable means an absolute legal responsibility for an injury without proof of negligence or fault for the act.

Owners who know their animal could be dangerous must take proper steps to protect public from the danger. This includes restraints, supervision, or impounding the animal.

However, in this case the town official subsumed the owner's liability by offering multiple assurances of safety, which created a special relationship that the plaintiff relied on.

This case is Celeste Swietlik v. Town of Hamburg, CA 13-00807 (2011-2368). The plaintiff was represented by Joseph D. Morath, Jr Connors & Vilardo LLP of Buffalo, NY.

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