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November 23, 2020

NYS High Court Holds the Vicious-Propensities Requirement Does Not Apply to Veterinary Clinic

New York State has long adhered to the traditional rule that a domestic animal owner’s liability for an injury caused by the animal turns on whether the owner has knowledge or reason to know of the animal’s vicious propensities. The rule imposes strict liability where applied and also shields animal owners from claims of ordinary negligence.

In Hewitt v. Palmer Veterinary Clinic, PC, the New York Court of Appeals held that an injured plaintiff did not have to establish notice of vicious propensities in order to maintain a negligence action against a veterinary clinic. The court distinguished the liability of the veterinary clinic from that of an animal owner.

The action arose from a dog attack in the veterinary clinic’s reception area. A veterinarian had just returned the dog to her owner when the dog slipped her collar and jumped on the plaintiff from behind. The plaintiff brought a negligence action against the veterinary clinic, alleging the clinic had a duty to provide a safe waiting room and that it breached that duty by bringing in an “agitated, distressed” dog.

The trial court granted the veterinary clinic’s motion for summary judgment, reasoning the clinic’s liability required proof it had notice of the dog’s vicious propensities in the same manner as that of a dog owner. The Appellate Division affirmed, but the Court of Appeals reversed, denying the clinic’s motion.

In finding the vicious-propensities requirement inapplicable under the circumstances, the court explained veterinary clinics are not in need of the protection afforded by the notice requirement because of their specialized knowledge and experience concerning animal behavior. Veterinary clinics are uniquely well equipped to anticipate and guard against the risk of aggressive animal behavior in their practices. Accordingly, the court concluded the plaintiff’s negligence action was viable regardless of whether the clinic had notice of the dog’s vicious propensities.

Notably, Judge Wilson concurred with the majority’s holding, writing separately to urge the court to revisit its holding in Bard v. Jahnke, 6 N.Y.3d 592 (2006), where it reaffirmed the notice requirement and rejected the argument that animal owners can be held liable based on traditional negligence. The concurrence advanced the view that the law has long permitted plaintiffs to pursue claims against owners of domestic animals sounding in both strict liability based on notice of vicious propensities and ordinary negligence.

Palmer clarifies the legal standard by which litigants pursue and defend these types of negligence claims against veterinary clinics. Additionally, Palmer signals the Court of Appeals may in the future be amenable to revisiting the vicious propensities doctrine as applied to insulate owners of domestic animals from ordinary negligence claims.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Matthew Paris, associate, at mparis@barclaydamon.com, or another member of the Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area.

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