Landlords, Dog Bites and Personal Injury Liability

Yes, a landlord can be liable when a tenant’s dog (or other pet) attacks or bites someone.  Each day about 1,000 U.S. citizens require emergency care for serious dog bite injuries.  As a result, there are a growing number of lawsuits stemming from dog incidents including those in which the landlord is named as a defendant.  Courts throughout the country including Pennsylvania have been making it increasingly easier to recover not only against dog owners but also their landlords. The Pennsylvania Superior Court has held that a landlord with actual knowledge of the dangerous propensities of a tenant’s animal and the ability to control or remove the animal is legally responsible for his or her failure to act when it is likely that the animal might attack or harm an innocent person.

As a firm, we represent many landlords in lease related matters including making sure their leases are worded properly.  Landlords most often have appropriate liability insurance coverage for injury claims so our role is more about drafting lease language which reduces the risk of liability and pursuing eviction of tenants who violate their lease.  On the other end of the spectrum, we also have a significant personal injury practice in which we sometimes represent individuals who have been hurt by a dog bite or attack.  As a result, we have perspectives from both sides.  It is very important that a landlord seriously consider its pet policy, and it is also important that someone who has been hurt by an animal attack understands that a landlord can sometimes be held legally responsible.

Generally, in a dog attack or bite case, the owner of the dog is the person who is responsible for the injuries caused by his or her dog.  The corollary is that most often an out-of-possession landlord (one not living or regularly present on the same property) cannot be held responsible for such injuries.  However, circumstances can arise when a landlord may also be liable along with the dog owner.  Those instances involve the landlord having some form of actual knowledge that the dog was dangerous before the subject attack and failing to address the risk of potential harm to an innocent person.  In these instances, it is not enough to establish that the out-of-possession landlord should have known about a dangerous dog (which is known as “constructive knowledge”); the landlord must have actually known of the dangerous propensities.

Such actual knowledge could come from any number of circumstances and sources such as personal observation while the landlord was at the rental premises, complaints from others such as neighbors, or some type of notice from local police, a government agency or perhaps a homeowners association.  The landlord must be prepared to act quickly upon any sign of problems regarding a tenant’s dog.  For these reasons, many landlords continue to maintain a strict no-pet policy or to otherwise significantly limit the size and type of dog or pet permitted.  Landlords who permit pets should make sure that they have adequately reviewed their applicable insurance coverage.  Also, if a landlord discovers that a tenant is keeping an unauthorized dog on the premises, it should act quickly to enforce the lease which efforts might eventually end in eviction.

What is considered “dangerous” includes acts that might endanger the safety of a person or his or her property.  There is no legal distinction between an animal that is dangerous because it is “vicious” and one that is dangerous because it is “playful.”  The mood or motivation from which the dog inflicts harm is immaterial.  For instance, if a landlord is aware a tenant has a dog (particularly a large breed) which has a friendly disposition but regularly jumps up on or plays roughly with people, there is an issue which the landlord should address.

To establish liability, a plaintiff must also establish that the landlord had the right to control or remove the animal by retaking possession of the premises.  The landlord would have such control under most standard written leases which typically provide the right to end the lease or otherwise evict the tenant upon any breach of the lease.  For example, if the tenant’s dog was becoming a problem, a landlord with a standard lease would typically have the right to require the tenant to remove the dog or face eviction for violation of the lease.  There might be other enforcement options such as requiring the tenant to better control, restrain or confine the dog, but the landlord then would be running the risk that there might later be a break-down in such procedures allowing an incident which would expose the landlord to being sued.

Many of us love dogs and they are often a big part of our lives. In the vast majority of situations, dog owners and their landlords effectively handle things so that there are no problems.  However, the reality is that the number of dog bite and attack cases are growing every year and the laws regarding the liability of both the owner and landlord are becoming broader and more liberal.  Victims of dog attacks can be severely injured and traumatized.  For this reason, we often help landlords draft appropriate lease language and, when necessary, pursue legal action against tenants to enforce the pet related provisions of the lease including eviction, if necessary.  We also assist folks who have been injured by a dog in bringing an appropriate lawsuit against all responsible parties to assure the best settlement or court verdict possible.
– Curt Ward

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