Landlord Liability for Tenants' Dogs
One of the reasons landlords are reluctant to rent to tenants with pets is that in some circumstances, a landlord may be financially responsible for damage or injury caused by a tenant's dog. In other words, if the injured person sues the landlord, the landlord, as well as the dog's owner, may end up paying. Tenants must be prepared to deal with the landlord's fear of liability.
In most circumstances, a landlord isn't liable for injuries inflicted by a tenant's dog. Just leasing premises to a tenant with a dog usually isn't enough, by itself, to make a landlord legally responsible for a tenant's dog. For example, if a tenant's apparently friendly dog bites someone, the landlord isn't liable for the injury.33
In general, when a tenant's dog injures someone, courts hold the landlord liable only if the landlord:
- knew the dog was dangerous and could have had the dog removed; or
- "harbored" or "kept" the tenant's dog - that is, cared for or had some control over the dog.
These factors are discussed just below. They apply to homeowners' associations, which control common areas in their developments, as well as traditional landlords.34
If a landlord is found financially liable, the liability coverage of the building owner's insurance may cover the loss. (Liability insurance is discussed in Dog Bites.)
Knowing About and Having Power to Remove the Dog
In many states, someone trying to hold a landlord liable for injuries caused by a tenant's dog must prove both that the landlord knew that dog was dangerous and that the landlord had the power, legally, to make the tenant get rid of the dog or move out.35 Sometimes, courts put this requirement in terms of the landlord's general duty to keep the property in a safe condition.36 As one court put it, a property owner cannot "sit idly by in the face of the known danger to others."37
But not all states use this rule. Under some laws, landlords are not liable even when they know a tenant's dog is likely to hurt someone. A Montana rancher, for example, knew that a dog belonging to his foreman (who lived on the rancher's property) had bitten someone. But when the dog later bit a utility company meter-reader, the rancher wasn't held liable. If, however, the rancher had exercised some control over the animal - was a "keeper" under the law - he would have been liable.38
Actual knowledge. To be held liable, a landlord must actually know that a tenant's dog is a danger to others. Dogs aren't presumed to be dangerous, although there is a possible exception for pit bull terriers in cities that have enacted breed-specific restrictions (See Dangerous Dogs). So only a landlord who has specific knowledge of the dog's dangerous disposition is legally responsible if it injures someone. In practice, that means the landlord must know that the dog has already threatened or injured someone.
For example, a landlord who knows only that a tenant's dog is kept chained and barks at people who approach probably will not be held liable if the dog bites someone. A New York court, given those circumstances, did not hold a landlord liable for the injury her tenant's dog had inflicted. Especially in light of the town's leash law, the court ruled, the landlord shouldn't be expected to infer that a dog is dangerous just because it is kept enclosed in a yard.39
If the dog is particularly threatening, however, that may be enough evidence of a dangerous tendency, as a Colorado landlord found out. Before signing a lease, the landlord took care of two dogs that belonged to a prospective tenant. During the two weeks he had the dogs, they threatened his grandchild. Nevertheless, he rented to the tenants. When the dogs later severely injured a child, a court found the landlord liable for the injuries. The court ruled that by leasing the premises to the tenants, the landlord knowingly created a "clear potential for injury."40
Courts generally say that a landlord who rents to a tenant with a dog doesn't have to observe the dog's behavior or check public records for complaints about the dog. For example, a California company rented a house to a family and specified in the rental agreement that they could keep a German shepherd named Thunder. The 100-pound dog chased a cable television installer out of the yard, making him injure his shoulder as he dove headlong over a fence to get away. The landlord was not held liable for the injury. There was no evidence that the landlord knew the dog was dangerous, and the court ruled that the landlord didn't need to assume that a German shepherd called Thunder would be vicious. After all, the court said, "it is not uncommon for an owner of a St. Bernard or a Great Dane to name the dog Tiny."41
(For a more detailed discussion of what kinds of facts put someone on notice that a dog is dangerous, see "The Common Law One-Bite Rule" in Dog Bites.)
A landlord who ignores overwhelming evidence of the danger posed by a tenant's dog does so at his peril. Such an irresponsible landlord may be punished by being made to pay extra damages (called punitive damages) over the amount needed to compensate the victim. That's what happened in an Alaska case, after a six-year-old girl was mauled by two dogs that belonged to her next-door neighbor in an Anchorage mobile home park. When she sued the mobile home park, a jury awarded her $235,000 in compensatory damages and $550,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, the court ruled that the mobile home park's inaction, after it knew of incidents involving the tenant's dogs, had been such "blatant disregard of its tenants' safety" that it justified the extra damages.42
On the other hand, some Ohio landlords were not liable for injuries caused when a tenant's dog bit a child, even though they knew the dog had bitten another child nine days earlier. The landlords said, in sworn statements, that they thought the dog had been destroyed after the first incident. The court ruled that this reasonable belief meant that they had no duty to take further action.43 Whether other courts would let a landlord off the hook in similar circumstances is questionable; most courts hold landlords liable for knowing about conditions (including the presence of a dangerous dog) on their property.
Power to remove the dog. Obviously, it wouldn't be fair to hold a landlord responsible for a dog he is powerless to control or have removed. For example, say a landlord buys a building that is already occupied by a tenant who has both a one-year lease and a dangerous dog. The landlord probably won't be liable for any injuries the dog causes, because the landlord may not be able to order the dog removed. But if the tenant has a month-to-month rental agreement, which can be terminated on 30 days' notice, the landlord who does nothing after finding out the tenant has a dangerous dog
may be liable if the dog later hurts someone. (Remember, however, that local laws may restrict a landlord's ability to terminate a rental agreement.)
In a North Carolina case, a tenant's two Rottweilers attacked a visitor. The lease gave the landlord the right to demand that the tenant remove his dog within 48 hours if the landlord decided that it was a nuisance or simply "undesirable." The court concluded that this provision gave the landlord control over the tenant's dogs, and he could have eliminated the danger they posed.44
A landlord who acquires a potentially dangerous or troublesome dog along with the property can still take measures to avoid liability and be fair to the tenants. Eviction may be possible if the dog is a nuisance, or if the tenants are violating a law that prohibits keeping a dog. A landlord who doesn't think getting rid of the dog is necessary may still want to take precautions, such as fencing in a yard or asking the tenant to keep the dog inside or post warning signs.
INJURIES OFF THE LANDLORD'S PROPERTY
A landlord may be liable for injuries caused by a tenant's dog even if the injuries don't occur on the rented property. The Supreme Court of Oregon ruled that a landlord can be liable if the landlord knew that the dog posed an unreasonable risk of harm to persons off the rental property. In that case, the landlord knew that the dog had been declared "potentially dangerous" by the county after it bit a child, and that the dog was sometimes allowed to roam.45
A California Court of Appeal ruled similarly, stating that liability for a dog bite off the premises depends on the same factors as liability for an injury on the premises. If, for example, a dog escapes because of defects in the landlord's property, the landlord would be liable for off-site injuries caused by the dog.46 Some courts, however, have ruled that a landlord has no duty to prevent injuries to third parties caused by a tenant's dog off the premises.47
Harboring a Tenant's Dog
Someone who "keeps" or "harbors" a dog - that is, cares for or exercises some control over it - is usually treated just like the dog's legal owner when it comes to liability for injury the dog causes. A landlord who does more than merely rent to a tenant who has a dog may be considered a "keeper" for purposes of liability. Here are some examples that show how courts evaluate such situations:
- An Illinois landlord rented half of his building to a tenant and occupied the other half himself. The tenant's dog, which was kept to guard the building, roamed all of it. When the dog bit someone, the landlord and the tenant were both held liable.48
- A landlord who lived off the premises hired a manager to take care of his Illinois apartment building. The manager allowed one tenant to fence in the building's back yard, which all the tenants used, and keep his dog there. One day the 65-pound dog leaped over the fence and bit a boy's nose, requiring plastic surgery to repair the damage. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the landlord had not harbored the dog within the meaning of the law. "Harboring," the court said, means more than simply allowing the tenants to keep a dog on the premises. Without "some degree of care, custody or control," the landlord was not liable.49
- Connecticut landlords rented an apartment to dog owners, but didn't ever feed or take care of the dog. The dog was not allowed to roam in or use the yard abutting the building. A court ruled that the landlords were not "keepers" of the dog, and so were not liable to a guest of the tenants who was bitten by the dog.50
- The landlord of a mobile home park was not a keeper of a tenant's dog, under the Minnesota dog-bite statute, because the landlord never tried to control or manage the dog. When the dog attacked a two-year-old on the landlord's property, the landlord could not be found liable, a court ruled.51
- A Wisconsin landlord was held not to be a keeper or harborer of her tenant's dogs and wolf-dog hybrids, which were kept in a wooded area near where the tenant and landlord lived. The court also ruled that landlords "who do not have control over or custody of" dogs could not be liable, on general principles of negligence, for injuries caused by those dogs.52
(The liability of owners and those who "keep" or "harbor" dogs is discussed more fully in Dog Bites.)
1 Cal. Civ. Code 1950.5.
2 Cal. Civ. Code 798.33.
3 Or. Rev. Stat. 90.530.
4 Housing and Urban-Rural Recovery Act of 1983, 12 U.S.C. 1701r-1.
5 24 C.F.R. 5.300 and following.
6 Cal. Health & Safety Code 19901.
7 Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. 36-1409.01; Conn. Gen. Stat. 8-116b; D.C. Code Ann. 6-1022; Mass. Gen. Laws Ann., ch. 23B, 3(u); Minn. Stat. 504B.261; N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. 161-F: 31.
8 Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. 794; 45 C.F.R. 85.53.
9 Oras v. Housing Authority of City of Bayonne, 373 N.J. Super. 302, 861 A.2d 194 (N.J. Super. A.D. 2004).
10 Whittier Terrace Associates v. Hampshire, 26 Mass. App. Ct. 1020; 532 N.E.2d 712 (1989); see also Majors v. Housing Authority of DeKalb, 652 F.2d 454 (5th Cir. 1981).
11 Woodside Village v. Hertzmark, 1993 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1726.
12 N.J. Stat. Ann. 2A: 42-103 and following.
13 "Pets Determine Where Elderly Choose to Live," San Francisco Chronicle, April 10, 1992.
14 Pet Ownership in Public Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. s 1437z-3.
15 New York Life Ins. Co. v. Dick, 71 Misc. 2d 52 (N.Y. C. Civ. Ct. 1972) (landlord could not enforce no pets clause against tenants who had had dog for nine years).
16 Chuchwell v. Coller & Stoner Building Co., 385 N.E.2d 492 (Ind. App. 1979).
17 For example, see Mutual Redevelopment Houses, Inc. v. Hanft, 42 Misc. 2d 1044, 249 N.Y.S.2d 988 (1964) (landlord was aware of tenants' dog for many months); Capital View Realty Co. v. Meigs, 92 A.2d 765 (D.C. Mun. Ct. 1952) (tenants kept dog for almost two years with knowledge of resident manager).
18 Landmark Properties v. Olina, Index No. SP1148/02 (N.Y. Dist. Ct. 2002).
19 New York City Admin. Code 27-2009.1; Seward Park Housing Corp. v. Cohen, 705 N.Y.S. 2d 875, 184 Misc. 2d 45 (2000).
20 Royal Associates v. Concannon, 490 A.2d 357 (N.J. Super. 1985).
21 Auburn Hills Homeowners Ass'n v. Elebiari, 121 Cal. App. 4th 1578, 18 Cal. Rptr. 3d 669 (2004).
22 "Dog-as-Therapy Argument Doesn't Sit Well With Judge," New York Law Journal, Nov. 18, 2004, discussing Contello Towers II Corp. v. New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, 46978/03 (2004).
23 Young v. Savinon, 492 A.2d 385 (N.J. Super. 1985).
24 Bell London & Provincial Properties, Ltd. v. Reuben, 2 Ct. of App. 547 (1946).
25 East River Housing Corp. v. Matonis, 309 N.Y.S.2d 240 (Sup. Ct. 1970).
26 See, for example, Gesemyer v. State, 429 So. 2d 438 (Fla. App. 1983).
27 Winston Towers 200 Assoc., Inc. v. Saverio, 360 So. 2d 470 (Fla. App. 1978).
28 Dulaney Towers Maintenance Corp. v. O'Brey, 418 A.2d 1233 (Md. App. 1980). See also Nahrstedt v. Lakeside Village Condominium Assoc., Inc., 8 Cal. 4th 361, 878 P.2d 1275, 33 Cal. Rptr. 2d 63 (1994); Noble v. Murphy, 34 Mass. App. Ct. 452, 612 N.E.2d 266 (1993).
29 See, for example, Wilshire Condominium Assoc., Inc. v. Kohlbrand, 368 So. 2d 629 (Fla. App. 1979).
30 Granby Heights Assoc., Inc. v. Dean, 38 Mass. App. Ct. 266; 647 N.E.2d 75 (1995).
31 Haw. Rev. Stat. 514A-82.5, 82.6.
32 San Francisco Daily Journal, Nov. 17, 1987.
33 See, for example, Georgianna v. Gizzy, 483 N.Y.S.2d 892, 126 Misc. 2d 766 (1984); and Gilbert v. Christiansen, 259 N.W.2d 896 (Minn. 1977).
34 See Barrwood Homeowners Assoc., Inc. v. Maser, 675 So. 2d 983 (Fla. App. 1996), reh'g denied (1996).
35 See, for example, Park v, Hoffard, 111 Or. App. 340, 826 P.2d 79 (1992).
36 See, for example, Gentle v. Pine Valley Apts., 631 So. 2d 928 (Ala. 1994) (dangerous dog in common areas of apartment building is a "dangerous condition," and landlord has duty to prevent injuries); Nelson v. United States, 838 F.2d 1280 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (U.S. government liable to girl injured by serviceman's dog on air force base; base security knew the dog had attacked children before and should have gotten rid of it to keep the base safe).
37 Linebaugh v. Hyndman, 213 N.J. Super. 117, 516 A.2d 638 (1986) aff'd, 106 N.J. 556, 524 A.2d 1255 (1987) (landlord liable for injury caused by tenant's dog because landlord knew dog had bitten someone before).
38 Criswell v. Brewer, 44 Mont. 1408, 741 P.2d 418 (1987).
39 Gill v. Welch, 524 N.Y.S.2d 692 (1988).
40 Vigil ex rel. Vigil v. Payne, 725 P.2d 1155 (Colo. App. 1986). A similar result was reached in a New York case, Strunk v. Zoltanski, 62 N.Y.2d 572, 479 N.Y.S.2d 175, 468 N.E.2d 13 (1984).
41 Lundy v. California Realty, 170 Cal. App. 3d 813, 216 Cal. Rptr. 575 (1985).
42 Alaskan Village v. Smalley ex rel. Smalley, 720 P.2d 945 (Alaska 1986).
43 Parker v. Sutton, 72 Ohio App. 3d 296 , 594 N.E.2d 659 (1991).
44 Holcomb v. Colonial Associates, LLC, 58 N.C. 501, 597 S.E.2d 710 (N.C. 2004).
45 Park v. Hoffard, 315 Or. 624, 847 P.2d 853 (1993).
46 Donchin v. Guerrero, 34 Cal. App. 4th 1832, 41 Cal. Rptr. 2d 192 (1995).
47 Tran v. Bancroft, 648 So. 2d 314 (Fla. App. 1995).
48 Edelstein v. Costelli, 85 Ill. App. 2d 81, 229 N.E.2d 557 (1967).
49 Steinberg v. Petta, 114 Ill. 2d 496, 103 Ill. Dec. 725, 501 N.E.2d 1263 (1986).
50 Buturla v. St. Onge, 9 Conn. App. 495, 519 A.2d 1235 (1987).
51 Wojciechowski v. Harer, 496 N.W.2d 844 (Minn. App. 1993). The court based its decision on the dog bite statute only; it did not discuss whether or not the landlords knew the dog was dangerous.
52 Smaxwell v. Bayard, 274 Wis. 2d 278, 682 N.W.2d 923 (2004).