Landlord Liability for Tenants’ Dogs

Ideas by Mary Randolph, J.D.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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. If the dog is particularly threatening, however, that may be enough evidence of a dangerous tendency. 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. 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.

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).

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.

So when it comes to dangerous dogs and land lording, make sure you are covered so you won’t be held liable for your tenants unruly dogs.

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