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New Jersey court allows dog sitter to sue for bite

A New Jersey appeals court has held that a pet sitter may sue the pet owners for a dog bite injury she received while caring for their golden retriever in exchange for money.

The owners were on vacation at the time of the dog bite. The pet sitter claimed that the dog attacked her when she bent down to pick something off of the floor.

In her ensuing lawsuit for damages, the woman relied on the "absolute liability" doctrine. Under New Jersey law, a negligent pet owner may be held liable for the injuries his or her pet may cause, even if the dog has not bitten previously.

However, a lower New Jersey court found that the woman had acted as an "independent contractor" because she collected a fee for dog sitting. Therefore, she could not avail herself of the "absolute liability" rule and would have to prove instead that pet owners knew about the dog's aggressive tendencies.

The New Jersey appellate court disagreed, finding instead that the woman was not an independent contractor simply because she helped out two people who were her neighbors. The neighbors had helped each other out with their pets in the past, and the woman appeared to make an arrangement directly with her neighbors (even though the woman was associated with a pet sitting agency).

Significantly, the court also found that the woman was not engaged in a full-time pet sitting trade. She watched over dogs to make money on the side from time to time.

The case appears now to be headed to trial or eventual settlement. It serves as a useful reminder that pet owners will have potential liability for their dogs' bites in a wide variety of circumstances and therefore need to watch their pets carefully for signs of aggressive behavior.

Source: Newsroom New Jersey, "N.J. pet sitter can sue for dog bite," Bob Holt, Dec. 28, 2012

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