PROTECTING THE CONSUMER

LANDLORDS: BEWARE OF DOG!

In the past several months, there has been a lot of media attention given to the case of Diane Whipple. Diane Whipple was a young woman who was brutally mauled and killed in her apartment complex by two massive rare breed dogs. One of the owners of the dogs was convicted for the manslaughter.

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There is now a civil case pending against the apartment complex owners for knowingly allowing a vicious dog on the premises and failing to make the premises safe.

This tragic case brings up many important issues regarding the legal obligations of homeowners and landlords, especially if you choose to keep potentially dangerous pets.

California law imposes very strict liability on dog owners to keep the public safe from vicious dogs. In fact, if an owner’s dog should happen to bite someone while on the owner’s premises, or if the dog gets loose and bites someone elsewhere, the dog owner is automatically liable to pay for all of the injuries and damages of the person who was bitten. There is no need to prove that the dog owner was negligent.

Owners of dogs of all breeds, large and small, vicious or friendly, must therefore take all necessary precautions to protect the public from their dogs. For instance, dogs must always be on a leash when outside of the confines of their home, and they must be completely and safely fenced in.

Fortunately, most homeowner’s insurance policies will cover bites to individuals, unless it is a breed of dog excluded from the insurance policy, such as Pit Bulls, Chows, German Shepherds, Akitas, Rottweilers, and some other rare breeds.

A landlord who owns and/or manages an apartment complex rental or home is also responsible for maintaining the public’s safety. The standard is a little different, however, and it is generally more difficult to prove a landlord is responsible for another person’s injuries than it is to prove against the dog owner.

In order to prove liability against a landlord, the injured person must prove that:

1. The landlord knew or must have known that the dog was in the building;
2. The landlord knew or must have known about the dog’s dangerous propensity;
3. The landlord knew or must have known that the injured party was in danger and failed to remove, control, or restrain the animal.

In other words, a plaintiff must prove that a landlord is negligent in failing to make safe a dangerous condition to which the landlord knew or should have known existed.

Landlords must therefore constantly be aware of their tenants’ adoption of any dogs. It would behoove the prudent landlord to place strict provisions in a lease agreement, restricting the breeds of dogs listed above. More importantly, the landlord must inspect the premises regularly in order to discover whether tenants have dogs which were not disclosed.

The landlord must also make sure that there is adequate liability insurance on the property to protect against negligent acts of the tenants. Landlords must understand that even if a tenant is negligent by allowing a dangerous condition on the property, the property owners and/or landlords will also be on the receiving end of the lawsuit.

However, if landlords take precautionary measures to avoid dangerous conditions, the likelihood of an event taking place is substantially reduced. Unfortunately, in the case of Diane Whipple, ordinary care and forethought may have prevented her tragic and untimely death.