Bridgehampton Dog Bite Case in State's Top Court
Albany, NY - The case of Scooter the face-biting dog made it to New York State's highest court yesterday, putting at risk the state's venerable "one- bite rule." The Labrador mix caused "disfiguring injuries" when he bit 8-year-old Danielle Bernstein's cheek in 2003. Her parents promptly sued the dog's owner, Juan Abel Mendez, who said the dog had never acted aggressively before.
Yesterday Bernstein's lawyer, James Forde of Manhattan, challenged the so-called "one-bite rule," a 180-year-old body of common law that suggests dog owners are not liable for animal attacks as long as their pets had never behaved viciously in the past.
"It's a misnomer to call it the one-bite rule, but the idea is that unless your dog has done something bad previously, like bite somebody, then there's no liability in the particular instance," said Carol Finocchio, Mendez's Manhattan attorney.
Scooter was 6 years old at the time of the attack and had been friendly since Mendez rescued him from a shelter. Mendez thinks Scooter bit Danielle in an attempt to get at the lollipop he said was in the girl's mouth. In the interview, Mendez says, "It was totally out of the blue. Since that day I pretty much keep him off the floor of my stores."
Finocchio said making Mendez liable for Scooter's extraordinary attack could expose dog owners to unprecedented legal risks.
"This would be a huge change in the law," Finocchio said. "Every dog owner in New York State would be subject to liability if the dog bit a child, regardless of whether they knew the dog was inclined to do so."
But Forde, noting that the girl needed more than 40 sutures inside and out to rebuild her mouth, said maybe more responsibility is a good idea.
"It's hard to explain to a dog owner in terms they're going to like to hear, but it's a question of who bears the responsibility," Forde said, adding the one-bite rule "unfairly places the risk and responsibility on the victim."
Neither side is arguing the victim caused this attack. Danielle stepped into the toy store and found Scooter panting on the floor. After assurances that Scooter was friendly, the girl began to pat and kiss the dog. Without warning, Scooter gave a short growl and then clamped his jaws onto Danielle's face just below her left eye. Adults pulled the girl away from Scooter.