"My tenant's dog just bit a guest in the apartment's common area. Am I liable?"
It may surprise many to know that under certain circumstances a landlord may be liable for injuries suffered to guests of a tenant’s residence. There is no easy answer to the question above, as it mainly depends on the landlord's knowledge of the dangerousness of the dog (see more below). While some may view this extension of liability as the purest example of our increasingly litigious society, there are serious questions to consider. After all, who protects the child who is injured by a dangerous dog while playing outside at his apartment complex? Or, who is liable when a woman is mauled to death in the hallway to her apartment when the landlord knew that her tenant kept two dogs who had previously bitten the mail carrier?
These hypothetical situations may seem extreme, but they do tend to counter the “deep pockets” argument. However, in the quest to assign liability it seems even churches are not immune. In fact, a Connecticut appellate court reversed a summary judgment (a finding that the plaintiff presented no case before trial began) for a defendant-church, where there were disputed facts as to whether the church had knowledge of its employee’s dangerous dog. In that case, the court found that when the church employee had not formally entered into a lease agreement with the church, it was difficult to determine who had control over the dog. Additionally, there were issues about whether the tenant or landlord had exclusive dominion and control over the premises.
These and other issues demonstrate that assigning liability to landlords is not taken lightly by courts. Courts consider dangerous animals in the same view as any other dangerous condition that might be present at a landlord’s property. In general, a landlord owes a reasonable duty of care to all who come to his or her property. The breach of this duty constitutes negligence on the landlord’s part. But what does this duty entail and how can a court find that an injury by a tenant’s animal can ever be the landlord’s responsibility?
The landlord’s duty comes not from ownership of the animal, but ownership of the land. Just as a landlord has a duty to make sure the porch is fixed if he or she is given notice that it is in disrepair, he or she has a duty to protect others from a known dangerous animal. The issue in most cases is whether the landlord had notice of the animal’s dangerous propensity. Did the animal attack others previously? Were there complaints from other tenants? And, did the landlord have a duty to inspect the premises for dangerous conditions?
The duty of the landlord under these circumstances must fall within what is foreseeable. In other words, a landlord cannot possibly be aware of the risk a barking dog presents to a woman who is startled by the dog and subsequently hit by a car. But, liability might be found when a landlord is aware of a dangerous dog at a liquor store he rents to a lessee where this dog then injures a delivery person. In general, liability based on the lease itself may depend on the nature of the lease (i.e., a commercial lease where the public is likely to visit) or provisions in the lease itself (one North Carolina case found a clause in a lease that allowed a landlord to remove an “undesirable” pet, sufficient to make a landlord liable).
Liability may also arise when the known dangerous animal frequents “common areas” of the landlord’s property. Common areas include hallways, parking lots, and other areas not under the exclusive control of the tenant. If a tenant’s dog injures a person on those areas, and the landlord was aware of the dangerous animal, he or she may be liable.
Interestingly, liability is not limited to the run of the mill dog bite. Horses and other large livestock that pose risks if loose on public thoroughfares can also be the subject of such actions. Again, however, the risk that such animals pose must be foreseeable to a landlord and the landlord must have some sort of duty to the livestock. Indeed, a belief that “mules . . . [are] not to be trusted” does not generally give plaintiffs a leg to stand on. (See, Brady v. Skinner, 646 P.2d 310 (Ariz.App., 1982)
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