In a recent opinion, Freed v. Bastry, Docket No. A-3284-18T2, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division held that the owners of a male golden retriever were not responsible for the injuries Plaintiff sustained when their golden retriever knocked her over at a dog park.
The underlying incident occurred in the “Off-Leash Dog Area” of Thompson Park in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Plaintiff and Defendants struck up a conversation while their dogs played. Defendants owned a 7 ½ old, unneutered male golden retriever. As the dogs played, Defendants’ dog ran into Plaintiff and knocked her down. Plaintiff sustained a right knee fracture necessitating multiple surgeries.
Plaintiff sued the Defendants for negligence. A set of “Guidelines for Use” were posted at the entrance of the dog park and required that all dogs over six months be spayed or neutered. The Plaintiff argued that if the Defendant’s “properly neutered their dog prior to letting him run free, the dog would have been less aggressive and therefore less likely to have run into [her].” The Plaintiff further contended that “the park guidelines had the force of statutory law and were adopted by the County to curb aggressive canine behavior.” The Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing. that the park guidelines do not create a duty owed by dog owners to others in the “Off-Leash dog area.” Therefore, bringing an unneutered dog to that area did not breach a duty owed to the Plaintiff.
The Trial Court granted the Defendants’ motion. The Judge held that the posted guidelines did not create a duty owed by the Defendants to the Plaintiff or anyone else using the park. Furthermore, the dog was not alleged to have been aggressive, and a dog running through an “off leash” dog park into someone was insufficient to sustain a cause of action for negligence. The case was dismissed, and Plaintiff appealed.
Plaintiff’s appeal argued that summary judgment was inappropriate as Defendants owed all dog owners using the area a duty to comply with the park guidelines. Additionally, Plaintiff asserted that a juror could conclude that the Defendants’ decision to allow their unneutered dog to run in the area was the proximate cause of Plaintiff’s injuries. The Appellate Division disagreed.
In upholding the grant of summary judgment, the Appellate Division recognized that a common law cause of action does exist when a dog injures another person, even in the absence of a dog bite. De Robertis v. Randazzo, 94 N.J. 144, 151-52 (1983). The owner may be liable to an injured party if he knew, or should have known, of his dog’s dangerous or mischievous propensities. Id. at 150. As Plaintiff provided no evidence that the Defendants knew of their dog’s “dangerous” behavior, she could only be successful by showing that Defendant’s breached a duty owed to her.
Lastly, the Appellate Division found that the guidelines posted in the park did not create a duty owed to the Plaintiff. New Jersey State law grants a board of chosen freeholders the power, by resolution, to adopt rules and regulations for conduct in connection with a recreational area which may be enforced as any other municipality ordinance. N.J.S.A. 40:32-7.12-13. However, Plaintiff never produced any resolution from the Board of Chosen Freeholders adopting the dog park guidelines as an enforceable “rules and regulations.” Even if she had, the Appellate Division held that her claim would still fail. The guidelines were not intended “to reduce the risk to those in the Off-Leash area posed by a dog otherwise exhibiting no overt aggressiveness or rambunctious behavior, such as jumping up on other dogs or humans in the area.” Therefore, the guidelines were not intended to reduce the risk of the incident which led to plaintiff’s injury.
Although this case is an unpublished decision, it reinforces the notion that not all accidents are suit worthy, and it’s a win for common sense. While dog owners may certainly be liable for their pet’s aggressive and/or violent behavior, pet owners do not need to fear the inherent risk that their friendly pet may knock someone down in an “off leash” dog park.
 Hristo Zevlikaris, Esq. is a Shareholder in GRSLBG&B’s Litigation Department. He defends a wide variety of clients in various civil actions brought forth in New Jersey State and Federal Courts. Chris can be reached at CZevlikaris@grsl.com.
 Alexis Carrelli, Esq. is an Associate in GRSLBG&B’s Litigation Department. She defends a wide variety of clients in various civil actions brought forth in New Jersey State and Federal Courts. Alexis can be reached at ACarrelli@grsl.com.