There’s an old saying in journalism: When a dog bites a man, that is nothing new, but when a man bites a dog, that is certainly news!
If you’re a landlord, however, and your tenant’s dog bit someone, it’s newsworthy to you. You need to know whether you’ll be held responsible.
Like most landlord-tenant issues, the answer to what happens when your tenant’s dog bites someone is that it depends, and the answer can vary by state as well.
This post will go through some scenarios to help you determine what could happen if your tenant’s dog bit someone. Please know that these are just hypothetical situations and should not be taken as legal advice. But first …
The Importance of Renter’s Insurance
If you require your tenants to carry renter’s insurance, you most likely won’t need to worry about being sued if your tenant’s dog bites someone. The tenant’s renter’s insurance will cover that.
Renter’s insurance protects you if your tenant’s dog bites someone.
The exception is if the injuries to the bite victim are so extensive that they go beyond what the renter’s insurance covers, and that doesn’t happen too often. Even if you are sued for the balance, there needs to be a case against you.
The rest of the scenarios we’ll cover will be focused on tenants who do not have renter’s insurance.
Sample Lease Clause
REQUIRED RENTAL INSURANCE. Landlord, Owner, or Manager does not maintain insurance to cover the personal property of Tenant(s) or personal injury to Tenant(s), their guests or occupants. Tenant(s) is required to obtain rental insurance in the amount of $300,000 public liability and $50,000 property damage from whatever cause to his person or property and to the person or property of those on the premises with his consent, and Tenant(s) shall indemnify and hold all other parties harmless from all claims arising from any such injury or damage throughout the term of the tenancy. Tenant(s) is responsible to obtain insurance within seven (7) days of residing on the Premises. Should any injury or damage occur within the first seven (7) days or prior to obtaining rental insurance, Tenant(s) shall indemnify and hold all other parties harmless from all claims arising from any such injury or damage.
Dog Bites: The Good News
In most cases, you are not responsible if your tenant’s dog bit someone. So breathe a huge sigh of relief.
In most cases, you are not responsible if your tenant’s dog bit someone.
You are also not responsible if you know there’s a dangerous dog on the property, but you can’t do anything about it. This could happen if you buy investment property that’s already occupied by a tenant who has a lease. As soon as the lease comes under your control, however, you need to correct the situation.
Dog Bites: The Bad News
There are some other instances where you could be held responsible if your tenant’s dog bit someone.
Scenario 1: You knew the dog was dangerous
Let’s say that when you interviewed a potential tenant, they had their dog with them. The dog was big, bared its teeth at you, and lunged at you. When you asked the potential tenant what’s up with the dog, they were honest and let you know that the dog had bitten someone before. They then explained that this is their guard dog.
You consider the story, and you like the tenant (who passed your background check). So you decide to rent to this person and allow the dog, even knowing the dog is dangerous.
In this case, if the dog bites a visitor to the property or bites someone in the common area, you could be held responsible for the injuries. Why? Because you knew the dog was dangerous and let the dog live on your property anyway. Some courts consider landlords who knowingly rent to people with dangerous dogs irresponsible and negligent.
Scenario 2: You didn’t enforce your own lease
You might not allow dogs in your rental unit, and you have a provision in the lease that states this policy. That is not enough to protect you if you don’t enforce your no-dog policy.
Let’s say that you know that your tenant is keeping a dangerous dog on the property — a direct lease violation. You’ve seen the dog when you stopped by for a maintenance call. The dog was chained outside and barked ferociously at you. Yet, you did nothing. You might be held responsible if that dog were to bite someone.
Scenario 3: You take care of the dog
You live on one side of a duplex and rent out the other side. You struck an arrangement with your tenant that you’ll take care of their dog when they need to go out of town for work. The dog bites someone while it was under your care. In this case, you would be considered an owner and would probably be held responsible.
Scenario 4: You didn’t fix the gate
Let’s say that you rented your property to a dog owner.
You have a fenced-in yard that you use as a selling point in your rental ad, even. But now the gate is broken and no longer latches.
The tenant let you know immediately and is concerned because the dog keeps getting out, and this dog is a pit bull who has a history of attacking other dogs. You plan to get around to fixing the gate, but the dog bit someone before you fixed it. You could be held responsible.
Scenario 5: Some people sue even when they have no case
People can and do try to sue for anything and everything, but that doesn’t mean they have a case. For example, if your tenant’s dog bites someone while your tenant is away from the property with their dog, you would almost never be responsible. However, if you know that your tenant keeps a dangerous dog on your property, and you know that the dog roams the neighborhood all the time, a court might find you responsible if that dog injures someone.
If you allow dogs at your rental property, take the necessary steps to help ensure guests to the property and neighbors are safe. If you know the dog is dangerous, don’t let your tenant keep it if you have control of the situation.
Nolo has a fantastic list of historical cases regarding landlord liability for dog bites. If you want to see how judges have ruled in the past, check them out.
You may also want to suggest or require that your tenant carry renter’s insurance, and make sure that you have adequate liability coverage from your landlord insurance policy … just in case.
credit to Laura Agadoni
Laura Agadoni is a landlord and journalist whose articles appear in various publications such as Trulia, The Houston Chronicle, The Motley Fool, SFGate, Zacks, The Penny Hoarder and azcentral.