In N.J. Pet Sitter Lawsuit, Debate Over ‘Independent Contractor’ Status

January 2, 2013

A recent court ruling in New Jersey focused on the question of whether a plaintiff who was bitten by a dog while working as a part-time pet sitter can be described as an “independent contractor.”

The plaintiff, Hillary Aiges, agreed to take care of her neighbor’s golden retriever while they were on vacation, in exchange for $300. But while at the woman’s home, the dog bit and injured her when she tried to pick up a napkin. The plaintiff then brought a dog-bite case against the dog’s owners.

Initially, a Superior Court judge ruled that her lawsuit against dog owners cannot go forward in the absence of proof that they knew or should have known that their dog was vicious. Although the plaintiff invoked the “absolute liability” provisions of New Jersey’s dog-bite statute, the trial court applied the “independent contractor” exception to the statute.

However. the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, last month disagreed with the lower court’s ruling, stating that the pet sitter was not an independent contractor.

The appellate court ruled on Dec. 21, 2012, that the statutory rule of absolute liability applies to plaintiff’s injuries. “We therefore reverse the trial court’s ruling and remand for trial,” the appellate court ruled.

Statutory Rule of Absolute Liability

According to court documents, Aiges is a self-employed, full-time photography agent. She occasionally performs dog-sitting at her home, as a side activity to earn extra income. She’s affiliated with a local pet-sitting agency that advertises and sometimes refers customers to her.

However, Aiges did not become acquainted with defendants — Jane Levine Fuccillo and William Fuccillo — through the agency, the court documents showed. Instead, the plaintiff and defendants reside in the same neighborhood and they have known one another for many years.

They have a cordial relationship, the courts noted. Defendants’ son, in fact, had even walked the plaintiff’s own dogs after school in the past.

According to the deposition testimony, the defendants called and asked the plaintiff about watching their dog, a golden retriever, while defendants went on vacation for a week.

According to Mrs. Fuccillo’s testimony, she had first called the agency that the plaintiff is affiliated with and, coincidentally, the agency identified the plaintiff as a local dogsitter.

The plaintiff then attempted to contact the agency about whether it was okay with the agency if she made a direct arrangement with defendants to watch their dog since they were neighbors — but the agency apparently did not get back to her.

The plaintiff was familiar with the dog — having previously seen and pet this particular golden retriever when Mrs. Fuccillo walked it around the neighborhood, court documents showed. She did not perceive that the dog was vicious or dangerous.

The two parties then verbally agreed that the plaintiff would take care of the dog at her own house while defendants were away, in exchange for about $300. No documents were signed.

While under the plaintiff’s care, the dog bit the plaintiff as she was attempting to pick up a napkin off of the floor in her living room. The plaintiff was injured and obtained medical treatment.

Afterwards, the lawsuit ensued. The trial court made a legal determination that the plaintiff had acted in this case as an independent contractor, and, as such, could not take advantage of the New Jersey statute’s absolute liability provisions unless she could prove that defendants knew or should have known the dog was vicious.

But because the plaintiff lacked such proof, she voluntarily dismissed her complaint, subject to her right to appeal the lower court’s determination.

Lower Court’s Decision Reversed

In reversing the lower court’s finding, the appellate court noted that the plaintiff was not in a full-time business that involved caring for dogs.

“She performed dog-sitting only on a part-time basis out of her own home. Although plaintiff was affiliated with a pet-sitting agency, she did not develop her relationship with defendants through that firm,” the appellate court stated.

The appellate court noted that the plaintiff and defendants were neighbors, who had known one another and their respective dogs: “The arrangement had an aspect of reciprocity… the parties’ arrangements were unwritten and informal.”

“Although we recognize that the plaintiff was paid a fee for caring for defendants’ dog, her receipt of that fee alone is not dispositive of the independent contractor analysis,” according the appellate court’s ruling. “Indeed, teenagers and neighbors commonly earn modest sums as dog-walkers and dog-sitters, and we discern no intent of the Legislature to exclude such persons from the protection of the statute.”

The case is Hillary Aiges, Plaintiff-appellant, v. Jane Levine Fuccillo and William Fuccillo, Defendants-respondents. Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No. A-1273-11t1.

Topics Lawsuits Legislation New Jersey Contractors

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