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Specialized Knowledge Relating to Animal Behavior Led to Finding that Veterinary Clinic Owed a Duty of Care to Plaintiff Attacked in Clinic Waiting Room

December 7, 2020 • Posted By Maria E. Stamatelatos • Insurance Coverage

             The  New York State Court of Appeals recently issued a decision in Hewitt v. Palmer Veterinary Clinic, P.C. et al.. Plaintiff Marsha Hewitt brought a case for personal injuries against defendant Palmer Veterinary Clinic (“Palmer”) after being attacked by a dog in Palmer’s reception area.  Plaintiff was waiting in the reception area with her cat when a dog named Vanilla, who had recently undergone a medical procedure to remove a broken toenail, saw plaintiff’s cat and slipped out of her collar and jumped at plaintiff from behind in an attempt to reach plaintiff’s cat, grabbing her ponytail. In the Complaint, plaintiff alleged that Palmer had a duty to provide a safe waiting room, that Palmer breached that duty by failing to exercise due care by bringing an “agitated, distressed” dog into the waiting area, that Palmer knew Vanilla had vicious propensities and that Vanilla was in an agitated and aggressive state. Plaintiff then filed a supplemental bill of particulars alleging that the clinic was negligent in bringing an agitated and aggressive dog into the waiting room and that Palmer was negligent in not giving Vanilla effective pain medication or anesthesia  and not following the standard of care for dogs after surgery.

            Palmer moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no prior knowledge of Vanilla’s vicious propensities and that such knowledge was a condition predicate to its liability. The Supreme Court granted Palmer’s motion for summary judgment, and the Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court’s decision. The Court of Appeals then reversed.

            The Court of Appeals found that Palmer did owe a duty of care to plaintiff, a client in its waiting room. The Court reasoned that as Palmer was a veterinary clinic, Palmer’s agents had specialized knowledge relating to animal behavior and the treatment of animals who may be ill, injured, in pain or otherwise distressed. Thus, the Court further stated that having this knowledge, veterinary clinics are uniquely well-equipped to anticipate and guard against the risk of aggressive animal behavior in their practice, which is an environment over which they have substantial control and which potentially be designed to mitigate this risk. The Court concluded that Palmer did not need the protection afforded by the vicious propensity notice requirement and that the absence of such notice did not warrant dismissal of plaintiff’s claim.

For further information, please contact Maria E. Stamatelatos, Esq. at