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What Pet Liability Issues Can A Landlord Face?

December 4, 2022

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Pet Liability Issues That Landlords Can Face

Renting to pet owners involves inherent risk for every landlord who decides to do so.

Pets can cause damage to your property and aren’t always the cleanest creatures.

There are many ways landlords can mitigate the risk that comes with renting to pets.

Pet fees and clear pet policies are just some of the ways to combat the risks.

However, what happens when your tenant’s dog bites a visitor?

Can you, the landlord, be held liable for that?

Let’s look at the answer to this question and what you need to know about your potential liability relating to pets.

When is a Landlord Liable?

In this article, we’re going to use dogs for our examples. That said, liability issues can involve other kinds of pets too, but dogs tend to be the most common.

In certain instances, you may be responsible for damage or injury caused by a tenant’s pet. However, in most cases, you won’t be held liable for your tenant’s dog’s actions. Generally speaking, when a dog injures someone, courts only hold landlords liable if the landlord knew the dog was dangerous and could’ve had it removed or was involved with taking care of the dog in some way.

Actual Knowledge

To be held liable for a dog attack, a landlord must have had prior knowledge that a tenant’s dog was and is a danger to others. And it’s not fair to assume all dogs are dangerous just because they’re dogs. The only possible exception is pit bull terriers or other breeds of dogs in certain cities that have laws around breed-specific restrictions.

A landlord who knows that a tenant’s dog is kept chained and barks at people as they walk by most likely won’t be held liable if that dog bites someone. This is baked by precedent. A New York court, given those circumstances, didn’t hold a landlord liable for the injury her tenant’s dog caused. The court ruled that the landlord shouldn’t be expected to assume that a dog is dangerous simply because it is kept in a fenced-in yard.

In another example, a California company rented a house to a family and stated in the rental agreement that they could bring a German shepherd named Thunder onto the property. The large dog ended up chasing a cable television worker out of the yard, and he injured his shoulder as he scrambled over a fence to escape. The landlord was not held liable for the injury because there wasn’t any evidence that the landlord knew the dog was dangerous. The court ruled that the landlord can’t be expected to infer that a German shepherd called Thunder will automatically be dangerous.

A Colorado landlord, however, found out the hard way that landlords can be held liable for tenants’ dogs if knowledge of potential danger can be shown. Prior to signing the lease, the landlord took care of two dogs that belonged to a potential tenant. During his two weeks with the dogs, they scared his grandchild. But he rented to the tenants anyway. When the dogs attacked a different child, the court found him liable for the injuries. The court ruled that by allowing the dog on the property, the landlord knowingly created a “clear potential for injury.”

Another example from Alaska proves that landlords should proceed with extreme caution if they become aware that a dog may be dangerous. Two neighborhood dogs mauled a six-year-old girl in a trailer park. When she sued the mobile home park, a jury awarded her $235,000 in compensatory damages and $550,000 in punitive damages. The mobile home park management company appealed the decision, but the court ruled that they knew of incidents involving the tenant’s dogs and had shown “blatant disregard of tenants’ safety.”

Power to Remove the Dog

In addition to prior knowledge about a dangerous dog, the power to remove the dog is another factor courts look at when assessing liability. For example, if a landlord buys a building that is already occupied by a tenant who has a one-year lease and a dangerous dog, then it’s not necessarily the landlord’s fault if that dog hurts someone. The landlord probably won’t be liable because the landlord may not be able to order the dog removed based on the existing agreement. However, if that same tenant has a month-to-month rental agreement, which can be terminated with 30 days’ notice, and the landlord doesn’t do anything after the first month then they may be liable if the dog later hurts someone.

The Importance of Pet Liability Insurance

These examples all show the importance of requiring your tenants to obtain pet liability insurance for renters. This way, if their dog does happen to injure someone, most of the financial burden will fall on the insurance company.

Finally, it’s also a good idea to protect yourself further against potential liability lawsuits through your landlord insurance liability coverage. You may find yourself held responsible if your tenant mistakenly lets their pet liability insurance lapse, if their pet causes damages or injuries that exceed their coverage, or if you accidentally find yourself in a situation like the ones we talked about earlier in this article.

Make sure to give your insurance company notice that there’s a dog in the place that you are renting out, though, or your claims may be denied.

Conclusion

It’s critical to understand when you can be held liable for tenants’ pets and protect yourself as much as possible. The more diligent you are about the things we’ve discussed in this article, the better off you’ll be when an unfortunate situation arises.

A proactive approach is always better than a reactive one. And, by enacting the pointers from this article, you’ll protect your business and put yourself in a great position should one of these situations arise.

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