N.Y. judge to cyclists: “Watch for dogs”

#WhyWeRide San Jose

In 2009, Wolfgang Doerr was just riding along in New York City’s Central Park when he collided with a 45 pound dog. A couple of years later, Cheryl Dobinski crashed while avoiding a pair of German shepherds south of Buffalo, NY.

Both cyclists sued the dog owners, and both cases made their way up to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s top court, where Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaa told the cyclists, “In public parks, one regularly encounters dog owners with their unrestrained canine companions.”

She ruled against the cyclists because they should have expected unrestrained dogs and taken more caution when cycling.

I agree with this reasoning. Now if only our courts would also recognize that motorists should also slow down to watch for children and other pedestrians and people on bikes when they drive.

H/T Bike Hugger.


  1. The plaintiffs relied on a statute which had language specifying “farm animals,” not pets. If I’m not mistaken the plaintiffs ultimately lost their case based on this language in the statute.

    I think your comparison of dogs to pedestrians and children in your last paragraph misses an important point.

    Pedestrians and even children are capable of understanding/following traffic conventions. Dogs can’t. Put into legalese, people are capable of exercising “due care.”

    Now people who aren’t New Yorkers probably aren’t aware Central Park has major streets where vehicular, as well as bicycle and pedestrian traffic is allowed. They have names like East and West Drive.

    In other words, the plaintiffs lost on a technicality. Owners of pets should bear some responsibility if they allow their pets to run free in those highly trafficked areas in Central Park. There just apparently isn’t a specific law regarding pets.

  2. I find that if you are cycling in a park watch for everything, its a multi use area, so expect; dogs, kids, ladies with strollers, people texting etc and don’t expect them to be paying much attention,

  3. I agree with the “No leash laws in NY?” comment. Most cities have leash laws and most parks I’ve visited require leashes within the parks. Does this ruling mean that a dog owner can sue a driver if a car hits their pet? This ruling, it seems to my non-lawyer self, has a lot of implications that basically mean that people can let their pets roam free.

  4. @BobC
    Full disclosure: I’m a dog owner and a cyclist.

    In the Franklinville (Buffalo) case the municipality had a leash law. The Dobinskis were biking by a farm and the farm owner’s dogs ran into the road. This was a rural area. The German shepherds were off leash. The plaintiff charged that the dogs being off leash indicated negligence. The court acknowledged that but determined that couldn’t be the sole determining factor for establishing negligence. The judges used the example if you had a dog in your house, and a visitor knocks on your door, and as you opened the door, your dog runs by you and sneaks out into the street, whether there should be a fair expectation your dog should have been on a leash.

    Incidentally this farm owner previously had another dog that died as a result of running into the road and being hit by traffic.

    In both the NYC and Franklinville cases the judges punted on the negligence question and relied on some statutory language that it was sufficient that the defendant “lacked actual or constructive knowledge that the dog had a propensity to interfere with traffic.”

    When insurance companies are driving such cases you get “liability-neutral” results like this.

    NY is something of a special case. In other 40+ states the outcome for a case with similar scenario would have likely been different.

  5. …””Pedestrians and even children are capable of understanding/following traffic conventions. Dogs can’t. Put into legalese, people are capable of exercising “due care.””…

    Except “due care” has little to do with many car-pedestrian collisions. You can have all the understanding and care in the world, but it won’t matter if you simply don’t have the reaction time and speed to get out of the way if a speeding car driver comes careening around a corner into your crosswalk. If you look at some example collisions and calculate what it would have taken to get out of the way, even Olympic track and field athletes would not have been able to do it, much less a senior.

    Pedestrian vs car fatality distributions are heavily waited to the older population, who are the most risk averse, most careful, and should have the most understanding of traffic conventions.

    I would also disagree that dogs when properly trained can not understand traffic conventions. Assistance dogs for the blind can for sure. So can many regular dogs you see walking off-leash on SF sidewalks, stopping at every corner and looking for non-yielding cars before crossing. Its just a matter of some training.

    I would not be surprised if assistance dog dog-vs-driver collision rates might be significantly lower than senior citizen ped-vs-driver collision rates.

  6. “a speeding car driver comes careening around a corner into your crosswalk” does not sound like “all the understanding and care in the world”.

    Are you lumping dogs and motorists in the same category, incapable of exercising due care?

  7. It sounds more like they are saying dogs potentially can exercise due care if trained for it, but most motorists aren’t willing or able to be trained to follow the rules of the road. I am inclined to agree.

  8. I think you’re saying that in a car-bike collision, the cyclist is always at fault, because only a person on a bike can exercise due care. I hope I’m misunderstanding.

  9. Sorry if I was confusing. It is often claimed that pedestrians in collision were not being careful, or should have just ‘jumped out of the way’. In many if not most cases, it was just not possible for the pedestrian to react fast enough and move fast enough to get out of the way. Therefore “due care” on the part of the pedestrian does not guarantee anything. Its just part of the overall ‘victim blaming speak’ which is designed to remove all responsibility from driver.

    I was not talking about cyclists, and I’m not saying cyclists are at fault.

  10. @Bike-Scoot

    It is difficult for me to discern what you are arguing arguing about. Certainly some dogs can be trained to obey a limited set traffic rules. Assistance dogs undergo long and expensive training, and can be differentiated by the general public by the “backpacks” most of them wear. This training is usually backed up by extensive paper trail and certification.

    Maybe you’re proposing the bright line standard to establish the negligence of owners who walk with their pets unleashed should be failure to obtain training/certification of their dogs to obey traffic rules??

    For both the NY cases, if you think the cyclists aren’t are fault (and having at least scanned the case files, I certainly think the bicyclists aren’t at fault), who should bear liability for the injuries that resulted?

    It is only fair that “due care” of all (people) parties in motorist-cyclist or motorist-pedestrian be bought up in court. Why don’t you cite me a court case where a motorist actually _won_ against a pedestrian/cyclist using ‘victim blaming speak’ such as “should have jumped out of the way?”

  11. One lawyer wrote a good summary of the NYC case (page 16 in the pdf), and explains why NY is a bit unique:

    One can only wonder in how Judge Abdus-Salaam might have ruled if it wasn’t a dog that crossed the street in Central Park, but say a 5-year-old child (or any child that was not yet old enough to understand traffic rules), at the command (but not accompaniment) of its guardians.

    In my hypothetical example the couple would have been arrested for reckless child endangerment, never mind “negligence.”

    The NY court decision was closely divided 4-3 in the Central Park case.

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