In D.C. v. Petco Animal Supplies Stores, the court determines the liability of a pet store owner in a case where a customer’s pet dog bites a child in the store. This case may impact not only pet stores where customer pets are routinely permitted, but other types of stores and venues where there is a trend toward becoming more “pet-friendly.”
On January 23, 2006, plaintiff Christian took her two children to defendant pet store, Petco, in order to buy supplies. Defendant Coughlin was also shopping at the same pet store. He had with him his 8-9-month-old Rottweiler puppy that he had adopted from an animal shelter just ten days earlier. The dog exhibited a great disposition and Coughlin was in the process training with the puppy. After coming from the animal shelter, the puppy had contact with children. The puppy had visited the pet store before the incident and had not exhibited any aggressiveness or territorial barking.
On that day at the pet store, plaintiff Christian asked Coughlin if her daughters could pet his puppy. The puppy was on a leash. Coughlin agreed. While Coughlin and Christian chatted, her children patted the dog. Suddenly the Rottweiler lunged and bit one of Christian’s daughters in the mouth causing her injury.
Under the common law theory of negligence, Christian sued the pet store owner and Coughlin on behalf of her minor daughter, alleging that the Rottweiler puppy was a dangerous dog and had a propensity for viciousness which Coughlin should have known. The pet owner and Coughlin both filed motions for summary judgment asking for the dismissal of the case. The court found that the Christian failed to raise a material issue of fact and dismissed the complaint. Christian appealed.
In order for a dog owner to be liable for a dog bite, under a theory of strict liability the plaintiff must show that the owner knew or should have known that the dog had vicious propensities. The plaintiffs chose to sue defendant Coughlin under the theory of common law negligence, which cannot be maintained in New York. Even if the plaintiffs had sued under the appropriate theory, there is no evidence that Coughlin knew or should have known that the dog had vicious propensities. There is no evidence that the dog had ever bitten anyone before or that it showed any other aggressive tendencies.
As for the pet store owner, there is a duty for a store owner to make sure that store customers are reasonably safe and to protect them from exposure to harm. The pet store owner was in control of the store. The store had an animal-friendly policy. The only material issue of fact here is whether the pet store owner could foresee the danger that opening his store to animals might expose customers to the risk of getting bitten by a dog.
The Court ruled that the animal-friendly policy of the store is an industry-wide standard designed for the benefit of the customers. The pet store has a rule that in order for pets to be allowed into its store, the pets have to be leashed or in pet carriers. The Court noted that there are 800 branches of the same pet store nationwide and 80 million transactions were recorded in the year before this incident. Only 5 dog bites have been reported to the management at any of the stores.
The Court ruled that the pet store owner is entitled to a dismissal of the complaint against him as well, as there is nothing inherently dangerous about the practice of having an animal-friendly pet store that would expose the pet store and its owners to liability for the dog bite sustained by the plaintiff’s daughter.