Dog Spooked in Veterinary Clinic Waiting Room & Cat Owner Injured

This was originally posted on the SGR Blog.

New York Court of Appeals Decides If Clinic Has Liability (On 10/22)

Palmer Veterinary Clinic, PC treated Vanilla, a dog, for a paw injury at its clinic. That same day, Marsha Hewitt brought her cat to the clinic for an examination. As Hewitt waited in the reception area, a veterinarian returned Vanilla to her owner in the waiting room; the dog had just undergone a medical procedure to remove a broken toenail. At some point after the veterinarian handed Vanilla’s leash back to her owner, Vanilla saw Hewitt’s cat in its carrier, slipped her collar and—in an apparent attempt to reach the cat—jumped at Hewitt from behind, grabbing her ponytail.

Several months later, Hewitt sued Palmer, alleging that she suffered injuries as a result of the incident. And alleged that Palmer had a duty to provide a safe waiting room, that Palmer breached that duty by failing to exercise due care and by bringing an “agitated, distressed” dog into the waiting area, and that Palmer knew Vanilla had vicious propensities and was in an agitated and aggressive state. Palmer denied the allegations and asserting various affirmative defenses, including that the clinic was entitled to have any liability apportioned between itself and the dog’s owner.

Hewitt subsequently alleged that the clinic was negligent in bringing an agitated and aggressive dog into the waiting room and for failing to adjust the dog’s collar to prevent it from getting loose. She also alleged—for the first time—that Palmer was negligent “in not giving an effective pain medication and/or anesthesia to the dog” and “in not following the standard of care [for] dogs after surgery.”

Palmer eventually moved for summary judgment dismissing Hewitt’s complaint in its entirety, asserting that it had no prior knowledge of Vanilla’s vicious propensities and that such knowledge was a condition predicate to its liability. In support of its motion, Palmer proffered excerpts from the depositions of the veterinarian that treated Vanilla, the clinic’s manager, the dog’s owner, and Hewitt herself. Palmer asserted that these materials demonstrated that it lacked any notice of Vanilla’s alleged vicious propensities.

Hewitt opposed Palmer’s motion for summary judgment and cross-moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that Palmer could be held liable in negligence despite a lack of knowledge of Vanilla’s vicious propensities. In support of her motion, Hewitt submitted an affidavit from a veterinary behaviorist and anesthesiologist, who opined that the incident was foreseeable and avoidable through various measures and that Palmer failed to use due care to prevent Hewitt’s injury. In response, Palmer submitted an affidavit by its veterinarian majority owner, who asserted that Vanilla’s treatment and discharge did not deviate from the accepted standard of care.

Supreme Court granted Palmer’s motion for summary judgment, reasoning that Palmer’s liability was contingent upon it having had notice of vicious propensities in the same manner as that of a dog owner. Upon Hewitt’s appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, with one Justice dissenting in part. The Appellate Division concluded that Palmer could not be held liable without notice of an animal’s vicious propensities, relying on our precedent dismissing claims against animal owners in the absence of proof of such notice.

Hewitt did not dispute that, under existing precedent, an owner of a dog may be liable for injuries caused by that animal only when the owner had or should have had knowledge of the animal’s vicious propensities. Once such knowledge is established, an owner faces strict liability for the harm the animal causes as a result of those propensities. An owner’s liability is determined solely by application of the vicious propensity rule. Hewitt argued that this rule does not—and should not—apply to Palmer, a veterinary clinic.  The Court of Appeals agreed.

The vicious propensity notice rule has been applied to animal owners who are held to a strict liability standard, as well as to certain non-pet-owners—such as landlords who rent to pet owners—under a negligence standard. However, other competing policies and contemporary social expectations may be at play in certain instances where domestic animals cause injuries. For example, the owner of a farm animal may be liable under ordinary tort-law principles when that farm animal is allowed to stray from the property on which it is kept.

It was undisputed that Palmer owed a duty of care to Hewitt—a client in its waiting room. Palmer is a veterinary clinic, whose agents have specialized knowledge relating to animal behavior and the treatment of animals who may be ill, injured, in pain, or otherwise distressed. An animal in a veterinary office may experience various stressors—in addition to illness or pain—including the potential absence of its owner and exposure to unfamiliar people, animals, and surroundings. Moreover, veterinarians or other agents of a veterinary practice may—either unavoidably in the course of treatment, or otherwise—create circumstances that give rise to a substantial risk of aggressive behavior. Indeed, here, a veterinarian introduced Vanilla into a purportedly crowded waiting room, where the dog was in close proximity to strangers and their pets—allegedly creating a volatile environment for an animal that had just undergone a medical procedure and may have been in pain.

Palmer is in the business of treating animals and employs veterinarians equipped with specialized knowledge and experience concerning animal behavior—who, in turn, may be aware of, or may create, stressors giving rise to a substantial risk of aggressive behavior. With this knowledge, veterinary clinics are uniquely well-equipped to anticipate and guard against the risk of aggressive animal behavior that may occur in their practices—an environment over which they have substantial control, and which potentially may be designed to mitigate this risk.

The Court of Appeals concluded that Palmer did not need the protection afforded by the vicious propensities notice requirement, and the absence of such notice in this case did not warrant dismissal of Hewitt’s claim. The Court did not intend to suggest that Palmer would be subject to the same strict liability as the owner of a domestic animal. However, the Judges were satisfied that, under the circumstances presented in this case, a negligence claim may lie despite Palmer’s lack of notice of Vanilla’s vicious propensities. Furthermore, viewing the record in the light most favorable to Hewitt, questions of fact existed as to whether the alleged injury to Hewitt was foreseeable, and whether Palmer took reasonable steps to discharge its duty of care. Thus, neither party was entitled to summary judgment.

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