In all civil cases in New Jersey, the party bringing the suit (the plaintiff) must prove two elements; liability and damages, against the party that is sued (the defendant).
Typically, liability is shown by proving that the defendant was negligent. Negligence is the failure to adhere to the duty imposed upon that person by law. By way of example, one of the duties of a person driving a car is to maintain a safe distance behind the car ahead of it. If a driver fails to maintain a safe distance and rear ends the car ahead, a jury could easily conclude that the following driver was negligent. Frequently, the defendant will assert that they were not negligent in order to avoid liability. In such a case, the final decision on liability is left to the jury after hearing all of the evidence.
With regard to dog bite cases in New Jersey, the law is different. N.J.S.A. 4:19-16 provides that:
“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.”
In legal parlance, this is a rule of strict liability - that is, the owner is liable without the necessity of proving fault.
In other words, if you are bitten by a dog while in a public area (i.e. sidewalk, street, park), or while on the dog owner’s property legally, the dog owner is liable to you for your injuries. Of course, the extent of injuries, and therefore the value of the claim, will vary from case to case depending upon the severity of the attack, the nature and extent of temporary and permanent injuries and the extent of scarring. Frequently, people injured in dog attacks will suffer not only physical injuries, such as cuts and scars, but emotional injuries as well. Often, the emotional injuries can be worse than the physical ones. Any injury, physical or emotional, which was caused by the attack can serve as the basis for a claim of damages.
In practice, an attorney would file suit against the owner of the dog, and soon thereafter file a motion with the Court asking the Court to rule, as a matter of law, that the dog owner is liable for the injuries. Once the Court enters Judgment finding that the dog owner is liable to the injured person, then the only remaining question is the value of any injuries suffered during the attack.
Where a person is injured by a dog, though not bitten, this rule of strict liability does not apply. Instead, the injured person must prove that the dog owner was negligent and that damages were suffered in order to recover.