A Cup of Joe | See What Happens When You Give a Shih Tzu – Animal Law Update

In this week’s case we meet Jheri Ciaccio; Jheri’s pet, Max, a Shih Tzu; and Biscuit, someone else’s pet — also a Shih Tzu, the same color as Max.

Jheri brought Max to Mamaroneck Veterinary Hospital, which provides veterinary services, grooming, and pet exercise services. They have a swimming pool for dogs to go swimming. Jheri dropped Max off for an examination and for a haircut. Biscuit was there at the same time. Biscuit was going to get a haircut, too.

When Jheri returned later to pick up Max, an assistant handed Jheri a towel-swaddled bundle. Using both arms, Jheri carefully cupped the wrapped Shih Tzu, which was handed-off to Jheri backwards. Jheri walked outside with her precious cargo and turned the bundle around. Staring back at Jheri was a Shih Tzu — but it was not her Shih Tzu. It was Biscuit. Biscuit did not recognize Jheri and was frightened. In a panic, trying to escape the strange dognapper, Biscuit bit Jheri’s hand and made a bee-line down the block and soon disappeared. Bleeding, Jheri chased Biscuit through the neighborhood finally cornering the Shitzu and after convincing it that she meant no harm, was able to return Biscuit back to the vet’s office and take Max home.

Jheri underwent hand surgery to repair the injuries caused by Biscuit’s bite. Jheri sued the vet.

Jheri’s lawyers argued that following the grooming process, the vet’s staff failed to look at the name tag on the Shih Tzu prior to placing the dog into Jheri’s arms. Therefore, the vet negligently released Biscuit from their custody to the wrong person. The vet’s affirmative conduct of negligently releasing and ceding control over a strange dog directly into the arms of Jheri caused or triggered that dog’s reflexive territorial instincts and aggression.

The vet argued that they were unaware of Biscuit’s vicious nature and therefore, they were not negligent. In fact, the vet refused, on the advice of counsel, to answer any questions concerning his knowledge of Biscuit’s propensity for violence or friskiness. [The Education Law and the Board of Regents rules that govern his practice of veterinary medicine forbid the release of pet and pet-owner information without the permission of the owner].

Should the vet be held responsible for Jheri’s injury caused by Biscuit? The vet did not even own the dog.

Here is what the court ruled:  “blatant negligence … is overwhelming in this case.” As to the argument that the vet was not the owner: “Strict liability for damages arising from the vicious propensities and vicious acts of a dog can be established where the defendant “owned, possessed, harbored, or exercised dominion and control over the dog.”

So it does not matter that the vet did not own Biscuit. The vet had control over Biscuit when the dog was handed over to Jheri.

The vet is on the hook.

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