A property owner and property management company (both referred to as "landlord") can be held liable for a dog attack under limited circumstances:
- The dog belonged to the landlord. This applies in states that have a dog bite statute.
- The landlord was harboring the dog. This applies in states that have a dog bite statute that covers harborers in addition to dog owners.
- The landlord owned or harbored the dog and knew or should have known that it was vicious. This is the law in all states.
- The landlord knew or should have known that the dog was vicious and that it either lived or was harbored on the landlord's property. The landlord was not an owner or harborer of the dog. Exception: in California the landlord had to actually know that the dog was vicious; "should have known" is not the law in California.
- The landlord knew or should have known that (a) the dog was owned or harbored by someone on the landlord's property, (b) the dog was of sufficient size to cause injuries if it got off the property, (c) the fences and gates of the property were defective and a dog could penetrate them, and (d) the dog would not have gotten off the property and the accident would not have happened if the landlord had properly fixed the fences and gates.
- The landlord did something else which was unlawful or negligent and caused the accident to happen.
If the landlord did not own or harbor the dog, the fourth and fifth grounds (above) will create liability only if the landlord had the legal right and enough time to either impose conditions of confinement on the dog or evict the tenant.
"Courts Reject Suing Landlords for Attacks by Dogs Kept by Indigent Tenants" gives a great overview of the issues that make it so difficult to sue landlords. The article is by Merritt Clifton at Animals24-7.org.
Avoiding liability if you are a landlord
If you rent to a tenant who owns a dog, your lease absolutely must have a comprehensive "dog clause." Its purposes are:
- Clearly prohibit dogs other than service dogs (and emotional support dogs in states that require accomodation for emotional support dogs).
- Establish that the landlord did not know that the dog was vicious.
- Prove that the tenant did not tell the landlord about any defect like a broken gate or fence.
- Require renter's insurance with proper terms and adequate coverage amounts.
- Establish reasonable guidelines for bringing new pets onto the premises.
- Make the tenant liable for damage by his pets and guests.
- Force the tenant to defend and indemnify against any lawsuits because of damage by his pets or his guests' pets.
- Enable the landlord to evict the tenant who has a dangerous animal of any kind.