Recently, John E. Gregory, Jr., a New Jersey dog bite lawyer, successfully resolved a case in favor of a six year old minor client who was bitten in the face by dog. The attack happened as the little girl sat in the lobby of her multi-family apartment building putting on her roller skates, when the dog owner, who did not live in the building, entered with his dog. The dog owner gained entry to the building because the front door to the lobby was defective and could not be locked properly and was often propped open, allowing non-residents to gain access to the building without permission from residents. The apartment building was located in a known high-crime area. The firm proceeded on behalf of the injured girl on two theories: liability against the dog-owner and liability against the landlord for failing to maintain the apartment building in a safe fashion.
On behalf of the injured little girl, the firm filed a lawsuit against the dog owner and the landlord. The case against the dog owner was based upon New Jersey’s very clear and straightforward “dog bite statute.” In short, the dog bite statute imposes strict liability against a dog owner whose dog bites someone, regardless of the dog’s former propensity towards aggression. More specifically, the liability of a dog owner is imposed by statute N.J.S.A. 4:19‑16, which reads 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.” It was based upon this well-settled statute that the firm pursued its case against the dog owner.
However, the firm was also successful in its case against the landlord whose lack of attention to maintenance and safety at the little girl’s apartment building was egregious and enabled the dog owner to gain access to the lobby area where plaintiff sat. The law is straightforward on a landlord’s duty. He must “exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of common facilities under his control to the end that the premises are reasonably safe and fit for the uses which he has invited others to make of them.” Linebaugh v. Hyndman, 213 N.J. Super. 117, 120-21 (App. Div. 1986) (citing Mayer v. Fairlawn Jewish Ctr., 38 N.J. 549, 555 (1962); Levine v. Bochiaro, 137 N.J.L. 215, 219 (E. & A. 1948); De Los Santos v. Saddlehill, Inc., 211 N.J. Super. 253, 261-62 (App. Div. 1986)). Where a landlord exercises control over a common area, as in this case, New Jersey law “‘imposes upon the landlord the duty of maintaining [such common facilities] in a reasonably safe condition for the use and enjoyment of the tenants.'” Id. at 121 (alteration in original) (citing Coleman v. Steinberg, 54 N.J. 58, 63 (1969)). If the landlord does not satisfy his duty and “such failure results in harm to the tenants or persons lawfully on the premises, ‘ordinarily the landlord is liable for the [resulting] injury.'” Ibid. (quoting Coleman, supra, 54 N.J. at 63). There is no dispute that the defendant landlord exercised exclusive control over the common area where the attack occurred. As such, the Court agreed the landlord could be responsible for the dog attack.
On the proverbial eve of trial, the firm was able to settle the case in favor of the young girl, sending a strong message to the dog owner and the landlord.