Dog bites are one of the big fears many landlords have when allowing their tenants to have pets. While the responsibility for the dog bite will usually rest on the animal owner, there are certain cases when a landlord could be liable. Here are three times you could be at fault.*
Tenant Usually Liable for a Dog Bite
In most cases, if a dog causes harm, the owner of the dog is the one who is solely responsible. This is particularly true if this is the first time, to your knowledge, that the animal has displayed vicious behavior.
Compare the situation to your responsibility for a tenant’s child. If their child gets into a fight with another child in the building, it is the child’s parents who have to deal with any legal issues, not you.
Advise Tenants to Purchase Renter's Insurance:
Since the liability for a dog bite often rests on the tenant, you must advise all of your tenants, especially those with animals, to purchase renter's insurance. It is important that they examine the policy to make sure it does not exclude coverage for injuries or damage caused by a dog or that it does not exclude certain dangerous dog breeds from the coverage. They should also make sure to find a policy that offers an adequate amount of personal liability coverage, usually at least $100,000.
3 Times a Landlord Could Be Liable
In most cases, a landlord will not be liable if a tenant’s dog attacks someone. However, there are certain situations when a landlord can be held responsible if a tenant’s dog does cause harm. Please keep in mind that each state has different laws, so it is important to check locally to determine the exact rules that may apply to you.
According to Nolo.com, a landlord could be held accountable if they:
- “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.”
- Knew the Dog Was Dangerous: In short, if a landlord had knowledge that a dog posed a real threat to others, the landlord could be held liable.
- For example: The dog had bitten or attacked someone and the landlord was aware of the attack. If the landlord chooses to allow the animal to remain on the property, knowing that it could be a threat to the safety of all tenants and anyone else who may come in contact with the animal, some states may consider partial blame for any future attack to fall on the landlord.
- This liability is usually combined with the landlord’s ability to remove the animal.
- Removal of the Animal:
Unable to Remove the Animal: Many states would not hold the landlord liable, even if the landlord knew an animal was dangerous if the landlord was unable to legally remove the animal. If you have attempted to remove the animal, but the court did not give you legal authority to do so based on state laws or based on your lease agreement, then you most likely would not be at fault for any future attacks. In this situation, however, you should alert all current and future tenants that there is a dangerous animal on premises and put up ‘beware of dog’ signs.
Able to Remove the Animal but Did Not: In a situation where the landlord had knowledge that the animal was dangerous and had the ability to remove the animal, but chose not to, the landlord could be held liable if the dog injures someone.
- For example: The tenant signed a pet agreement that stated if the dog displayed any vicious behavior, the tenant must get rid of the animal or must move-out with the animal. The dog bit someone. This would be considered vicious behavior. According to the pet agreement, the dog and/or tenant should no longer live in the property.
- If the landlord did not follow through on this contract, and the dog bites another person, the landlord could be liable. In this case, the landlord knowingly and willingly allowed a dangerous animal that was a threat to others to continue to live in their property.
- The theory is that, while the landlord does not own the dog, their negligence contributed to any future attack.
- Harbored the Animal: If the landlord cares for the dog as if he or she owns the dog, i.e. feeds the dog, takes it for walks, watches the dog while the owner is at work, then he or she will inherit the same liability as the dog’s actual owner if the dog injures someone. They become a de facto owner.
3 Ways Landlords Can Protect Themselves
- Follow the Law and the Conditions of Your Lease: The first way to protect yourself is to follow the law. If you have a dangerous animal on your property that is a threat to the safety of others, you must do everything in your power to have the animal removed or to make sure that others are aware of the danger.
- Screen Tenants and Pets Up Front: Properly screening all tenants and any pets they may have prior to move in can help minimize issues in the future. You should meet the pet beforehand and request a record of all vaccines.
- Maintain the Proper Insurance: Making sure you have the proper insurance will help protect you if issues do arise. You will want to make sure your policy provides liability coverage for injuries caused by dogs.
You will also need to check your policy carefully to see if there are any dangerous dog breeds that are omitted from the coverage. Dangerous dog breeds account for a great majority of all dog bites and therefore insurance companies often exclude such breeds from insurance coverage. If you allow your tenant to have one of the breeds that is excluded from coverage by your policy, then you could be financially responsible if the dog does cause injury because you knowingly allowed this dangerous breed on your property.
You will also want to determine how much liability coverage you have. You will want to speak with your insurance agent to determine the appropriate amount of coverage for you. For some perspective, Dogbitelaw.com recommends that households with a medium size dog have at least $300,000 in coverage, which then gives the option to purchase an additional umbrella policy worth one million dollars for a minimal additional yearly fee.
*This is opinion and not legal advice. Please consult legal counsel to determine any liability you may have based on your specific situation.