Landlord Liability for Tenants' Dogs

Some landlords fear that they'll be on the hook if a tenant's dog injures someone.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

One of the reasons landlords are reluctant to rent to tenants with dogs is fear that if the dog injures someone, the landlord, as well as the dog's owner, may end up paying.

It's very rare, however, for a landlord to be found liable for injuries inflicted by a tenant's dog. Just leasing premises to a tenant with a dog 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. (See, for example, Stokes v. Lyddy, 75 Conn. App. 252 (2002) and Georgianna v. Gizzy, 483 N.Y.S.2d 892, 126 Misc. 2d 766 (1984).)

In general, courts hold a 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 may also apply to homeowners' associations, which control common areas in their developments, as well as landlords. (See Barrwood Homeowners Assoc., Inc. v. Maser, 675 So. 2d 983 (Fla. App. 1996), reh'g denied (1996).)

If a landlord is found financially liable, the building owner's liability insurance may cover the loss.

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 the dog was dangerous and that the landlord had the power, legally, to make the tenant get rid of the dog or move out. As one court put it, a property owner cannot "sit idly by in the face of the known danger to others." (Linebaugh v. Hyndman , 516 A.2d 638 (1986) aff'd, 524 A.2d 1255 (1987) (landlord liable for injury caused by tenant's dog because landlord knew dog had bitten someone before).)

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, he would have been liable. (Criswell v. Brewer, 741 P.2d 418 (Mont. 1987).)

Actual knowledge. To be held liable, a landlord must actually know that a tenant's dog is a danger to others. 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 inflicted. (Gill v. Welch, 524 N.Y.S.2d 692 (1988).)

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." (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, 479 N.Y.S.2d 175, 468 N.E.2d 13 (1984).)

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. (Alaskan Village v. Smalley ex rel. Smalley, 720 P.2d 945 (1986).)

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. (Parker v. Sutton, 594 N.E.2d 659 (Ohio App 1991).) Whether other landlords would be let 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. 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.

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 dogs within 48 hours if the landlord decided that they were 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. (Holcomb v. Colonial Associates, LLC, 597 S.E.2d 710 (N.C. 2004).)

A landlord who acquires a potentially dangerous or troublesome dog along with the property can still take measures to avoid injuries and liability. Eviction may be possible if the dog is a nuisance. Short of eviction, a landlord could fence in a yard, ask 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 off 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. (Park v. Hoffard, 847 P.2d 853 (Or. 1993).)

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. (Donchin v. Guerrero, 41 Cal. Rptr. 2d 192 (Cal. App. 1995).) 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. (Tran v. Bancroft, 648 So. 2d 314 (Fla. App. 1995).)

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. Here are some examples:

  • 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. Without some "care, custody or control," of the dog, the landlord was not liable. (Steinberg v. Petta, 501 N.E.2d 1263 (1986).)
  • Connecticut landlords rented an apartment to dog owners, but didn't 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. (Buturla v. St. Onge, 519 A.2d 1235 (Conn. 1987).)
  • 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. (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 landlord knew the dog was dangerous.
  • A Wisconsin landlord was held not to be a keeper or harborer of her tenant's dogs, 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 those dogs cause. (Smaxwell v. Bayard, 682 N.W.2d 923 (2004).)

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