Roughly one-third of all insurance claims against property owners are for dog bites and the average cost to settle a dog bite claim is now $32,000, a significant rise from previous years, that according to the Insurance Information Institute and State Farm. Experts attribute this spike in part to the increasing willingness of juries to hang the blame on landlords.
For example, in a recent case, a Georgia appeals court reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a claim against a landlord. In that case, the tenants kept two dogs that they raised as puppies in the fenced backyard. The tenants reported that the gate latch had been broken, but the landlord did not complete the repair.
Instead, the tenants secured the gate with a rope and weights. Later, the dogs broke through the gate and chased down a passerby who was walking her dogs. The woman was seriously injured when she attempted to shield her dogs and had to be airlifted to a hospital. The tenants’ dogs were shot and killed by a police officer.
Although the tenants pleaded guilty to several criminal charges including failing to restrain the animals, the victim sued both the tenant and the landlord. At trial, the case against the landlord was dismissed because there was no evidence that the dogs had shown vicious propensities or that the landlord had knowledge that the dogs were a danger. However, the appeals court reversed that decision saying that the landlord owed a duty to fix the gate latch.
The dogs involved in this case were pit bulls, which leads to the question of whether certain breeds of dogs should be banned. Based on the latest government statistics, large dogs are the most likely to cause fatalities. Pit bulls, German shepherds, Rottweilers, huskies and malamutes have been the most likely offenders. However, these statistics don’t tell the whole story. Large dogs are the most likely to cause fatalities due to their relative size and strength, but the numbers don’t prove that these dogs are the most likely to bite in the first place. Most dog bites are not fatal, and smaller dogs like Chihuahuas, cocker spaniels and Pekinese have been known to snip at strangers.
That makes it difficult to justify a pet policy based on breed, size or weight restrictions, a common property management practice. Other tenants may perceive that smaller dogs are less threatening and perhaps smaller dogs are quieter in multifamily buildings, but size and weight restrictions are literally random and do not in any way limit a landlord’s potential liability for dog bites.
To do that, landlords need to focus on the individual animal and on the tenant’s ability to care for it. Any dog — or cat — that is under stress, feeling threatened, or unhealthy is capable of biting. Typically, aggressive behavior worsens gradually, even though tenants are shocked when the animal “suddenly” behaves that way. Being placed in a new environment or left alone for long hours can make any animal feel threatened by passersby. Sometimes the animals already have ventured away from enclosures to explore new territory without the tenant being aware.
So, reducing the likelihood of a dog bite revolves around screening the individual tenant and pet, and actively managing the property. Landlords should:
1. Meet the pet, preferably in an unfamiliar environment and look for signs of proper socialization. A well-socialized animal will not fear strangers. Timid behavior should quickly give way to friendliness.
2. At the same time, assess the tenant’s ability to handle the animal, paying close attention to how the pet responds to its owner. Discuss the daily care routine with the tenant. For example, what does the tenant plan to do when they are out of town for the weekend? Animals that will be unsupervised for long periods of time can become aggressive.
3. Consider how long the tenant has owned the pet. Vicious tendencies aren’t always apparent with new animals.
4. Ask what steps the tenant has taken to train the animal. Local pet shops and shelters may offer a certificate proving the animal — and the owner — have been properly trained. Make sure the tenant is aware of local leash laws and understands legal obligations, like the need to vaccinate. Whether the animal has a current rabies vaccination may factor into the damages awarded to a victim if the animal bites.
5. When screening the tenant, ask previous landlords about the specific pet. Find out if it’s the same one, or if the tenant may have other pets they are concealing. Ask if the pet was a problem in the past.
6. The lease agreement should tie the pet’s behavior to eviction. If the animal acts out, the tenant must understand that they, too, may need to find a new home.
7. Inspect the property routinely and look for signs of neglect: a path worn from pacing or running the fence lines, scratching at doors and windows, or neighbors complaining.
8. Act immediately on allegations that an animal is becoming aggressive — like cornering the maintenance man or snarling at strangers through the windows.
9. Stay up on local pet ordinances. One of the easiest ways to prove liability against the landlord is to show that the landlord violated some local statute. For instance, some cities have a ban on particular breeds. Also, check with the insurance company to see if there are any actions that are not covered or could void the policy.
10. Keep the property in good repair. A landlord’s actions will be scrutinized if there is an injury, and when it comes to disputes over liability, the less ammunition the better.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.