New York's top court ruled Tuesday, June 9, 2015, that...

New York's top court ruled Tuesday, June 9, 2015, that dog owners aren't liable for their pets running onto roads and colliding with bicyclists. Credit: Aaron Zebrook

New York's top court ruled Tuesday that dog owners aren't liable for their pets running onto roads and colliding with bicyclists.

Unless their dogs previously had shown a proclivity to interfere with traffic, owners cannot be held responsible for a hound-bike collision, the Court of Appeals ruled in two cases, one set in Central Park in Manhattan and the other in rural Cattaraugus County. The court said previous rulings that held owners responsible for farm animals straying onto roadways can't be applied to household pets.

"New York society has had no reasonable expectation that all domestic pets will be perpetually confined in their homes or physically restrained at all times," Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wrote as part of the majority in the two cases decided Tuesday. "The average New Yorker knows or ought to know that he or she will encounter insufficiently restrained pets, which are not confined to the owner's premises and may harm others depending on the disposition of the pet and the degree of training it has received."

One case centered on a 2009 accident in which Wolfgang Doerr was toppled while riding on the Central Park loop. According to court documents, dog owner Julie Smith called her dog from the other side of the road and the pet, when crossing, slammed into the bicyclist. Doerr fell to the pavement, injuring his face. In a 4-3 vote, the court sided with Smith and dismissed Doerr's lawsuit.

Abdus-Salaam said it didn't matter that Smith called the dog, saying the "inability to predict or control how a dog will interpret, react, and respond to its surroundings is why negligence cannot lie based on the owner's order alone."

In the other case, Cheryl Dobinski and her husband were riding the bikes past the farm of George and Milagros Lockhart in Franklinville in 2012, when the Lockharts' German shepherds ran into the road and collided with Dobinski, causing her to flip over her handle bars and land on her back, according to court documents. The court ruled 5-2 in the Lockharts' favor, dismissing Dobinski's negligence lawsuit.

The dissenting judges said there was "no logical" reason for holding dog owners and farm-animal owners to different standards.

"It is certainly not true, either in Franklinville or Manhattan, that the average citizen expects to encounter unrestrained and unaccompanied dogs, running loose among traffic," Judge Eugene Fahey wrote for the minority, adding that any animal owner should "be subject to liability for harm done by the animal if he or she is negligent in failing to prevent that harm."