A recent N.J. Supreme Court case, Robinson v. Vivirito, tested the “temporal and physical limits” of the responsibility of a school principal to protect outsiders passing across school property. The case involved a woman who was attacked by a dog while walking across a schoolyard on a Saturday on her way to a local diner. The dog belonged to the resident of a home adjacent to the school. An investigation revealed that the dog had a history of escaping and accosting passersby. In fact, nine days before the woman was attacked, the school principal received a complaint via certified mail from two people who had been previously attacked. The principal failed to take any action in response to the letter.
The trial court dismissed the case finding that the principal had immunity from liability under the N.J. Tort Claims Act. The case went to the Appellate Division and the court reinstated the case finding that the school principal did, indeed, have a duty to take measures to prevent a dangerous dog from entering onto school property. The case then went to the N.J. Jersey Supreme Court which ultimately sided with the principal and dismissed the case for good.
The Tort Claims Act allows liability against a public employee for a dangerous condition on public property. The Supreme Court found that this is limited to the physical condition or features of the property itself. The Court also found that there was no special relationship between the woman who was attacked and the school. In fact, she was “a stranger to the mission of the school and a trespasser.” Therefore, the principal and the school board had a “limited opportunity and ability” to alleviate or minimize the risk of a roaming dog, especially when school was not in session. The Court emphasized that strict liability is imposed upon a dog owner by statute and noted that a non-owner would have no “opportunity to control the behavior and location” of another’s dog. Under these circumstances, it was unfair and unreasonable in the Court’s opinion to impose a duty of care “absent some ability to control the behavior and location of the dog.”