No Liability for School Sued for Dog Bite Injury to Third Party

By: Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

Charlotte Robinson walked across school grounds as a short cut to reach a local diner. As she walked across the grounds, a stray dog, owned by a neighboring resident, attacked her, causing her injuries. The attack occurred on a Saturday when school was not in session, nor when a school event was ongoing. In Robinson v. Vivirito, 2014 N.J. LEXIS 243 (2014), Robinson sued the school district and its principal on the basis that they had a duty to protect her from a known dangerous dog. This appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court determined whether the school district and its principal could be liable for this attack.

This dog had slipped its leash before and had attacked a passersby, and the school principal had notice of the incident. The plaintiff contended that the principal and the school district had a duty to prevent future attacks.

The Appellate Division found that a duty did exist to take measures to prevent entry of a known dangerous dog onto school property. However, the Supreme Court reversed, finding that a school principal owes no duty of care to a third party who decides to use school property after hours for personal purposes and is injured by a stray animal that is neither owned nor controlled by school personnel.

The Court looked at whether the harm to plaintiff was foreseeable and whether recognition of a duty of care to plaintiff under these circumstances comports with considerations of fairness and public policy. While the Court recognized that the principal could have called the police or the animal control officers during the week, neither the principal nor the school had any control over the dog or activities on the neighboring property. Moreover, once the school day ended, the principal had no ability to monitor conduct on or near school grounds.

Further, in looking at other factors, the Court noted that there was no relationship between Robinson and the school. She was a trespasser and it was her unilateral decision to use the school yard as a short cut.

While Robinson certainly had a claim against the dog’s owner, a non-owner has no ability to control the location and behavior of the neighbor’s dog. The principal’s actions to prevent an encounter would be limited to calling the police or animal control. As a result, the Court found no public interest in imposing a duty of care on school personnel to protect persons with no relationship to the school from attacks by a neighbor’s dog. Otherwise, it would render the school an insurer of the negligent behavior of others, which is contrary to the Tort Claims Act. Accordingly, this case was dismissed.