$500k dog bite settlement sheds light on victim-friendly laws in N.J.

Category: Dog Bites

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As he walked out of his office around 5:30 that July morning, Samuel Akinsanya heard growling in the hallway. A Rottweiler and pit bull had escaped from a cage in the Elizabeth factory where he worked the overnight shift as a security guard.

Before Akinsanya could react, the dogs pounced.

“They jumped at me. I was trying to fight. I was trying to defend myself but they were biting me all over my body,” Akinsanya, 43, said in a phone interview Friday. He said he fought the animals “for almost an hour before police came to rescue me.”

The attack, which occurred in 2010, was so vicious that Akinsanya, who lives in Newark, was left in a coma-like state, intubated in a hospital bed, for 10 days. He was bitten over most of his body, and suffered muscle damage and permanent scarring.

The pit bull choked itself to death because it was thrashing around so much when police tried to subdue the dog. The Rottweiler was eventually returned to its owner.

Akinsanya sued the owner of the dogs and the building’s landlord. An arbitrator eventually awarded him $563,000 in damages which, according to Akinsanya’s attorney, is one of the largest settlements related to a dog bite in New Jersey, where the liability laws governing dog bites are becoming more favorable toward victims.

“Years ago, you would have to prove that the dog bit someone else previously and that the owner knew that he had a propensity to bite,” said the attorney, Frank M. Smith. “Now you have strict liability which is as favorable as things get and for good reason. Dogs are completely unpredictable and owners should be responsible for whatever happens.”

The settlement is unique for both the amount of the award as well as the distribution of fault.

The owner of the dogs, Jose Acosta, who kept them in a chain link enclosure inside the factory, was found liable for 85 percent of the damages but the building’s landlord was also found liable and ordered to pay 15 percent of the damages.

Acosta could not be reached for comment and the phone line for the landlord, Baker Development Center LLC of Elizabeth, has been disconnected.

In New Jersey, a landlord can be held liable if he fails to warn those inside his building that dangerous dogs are present or if he does not make the premise safe for those he hires to work onsite, such as security guards, Smith said.

New Jersey is among the majority of states where a dog owner is liable for damages inflicted on a bite victim even if the dog has never exhibited biting tendencies.

To recover damages, a victim must prove the defendant owned the dog, that the dog bit the plaintiff and that the plaintiff was in a public place or lawfully on the owner’s property. The statute does not apply to trespassing or to victims who provoke.

But the rules on who can file a lawsuit may get even more lenient. A recent appellate court decision expanded the law to include certain dog walkers or dog sitters who are bitten.

A Teaneck woman bitten by a golden retriever she was dog sitting can sue the dog’s owners, the appellate court ruled in December, reversing an earlier decision which said the woman was acting as an independent contractor and did not have the legal basis to sue. The appellate court noted that the plaintiff was not in a full-time business that involved caring for dogs.

“She performed dog-sitting only on a part-time basis out of her own home. Although plaintiff was affiliated with a pet-sitting agency, she did not develop her relationship with defendants through that firm,” the appellate court said.

Each year, 4.5 million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs, 885,000 of whom require medical treatment, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. About 65 percent of those who end up in hospital emergency rooms are children between the ages of 5 and 9.

The number of dog bite incidents have remained steady over the years, attorneys say, and most frequently involve pit bulls, a breed banned in many communities, including Miami-Dade County, Florida and Aurora, Colorado.

In 2009, a jury in Middlesex County awarded a Lakewood woman $1.5 million after she was attacked by a pit bull at her father’s house.

For Akinsanya, the security guard who was attacked, the settlement helped pay for his medical bills and to support his wife and children in Nigeria. He was out of work for six months after the attack and still struggles with muscle function and losing feeling in his arms.

“After this experience never in my life can I be near a dog,” Akinsanya said. “If I see a dog coming I go another way.”

Here are some related articles about recent dog bites or dog attacks:

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See the original article here: https://www.nj.com/essex/2013/02/500k_dog_bite_settlement_sheds.html

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