There are good reasons why most [small property owners] don’t rent to tenants with dogs. Dogs may bark and pose a nuisance to other tenants in the building; they may even be destructive to the unit or common areas. But perhaps the key reason they tend to say “no” to dogs, especially large ones, is liability – fear that the dog may behave unpredictably and end up biting someone. In a city with very few vacancies and often multiple applicants without dogs to choose from, it’s understandable that most small property owners opt for a NO DOGS policy.
What Are The Risks Of Allowing A Dog?
If you do consent to a dog, and have screened it and its owner carefully up front, there is still some risk of liability. While there have been relatively few cases of a landlord being found legally liable for injuries inflicted by their tenant’s dog, it pays to know the law and the risks, especially in a city where a landlord is powerless to keep a tenant from bringing in a dog and claiming it as an “emotional support animal.”
When The Landlord Becomes Co-Liable
California applies strict liability when a dog injures others. Owner liability is not in question: the dog owner (in this case, the tenant) is strictly liable for injuries caused by his dog, and is automatically responsible to pay for damages to the victim.
The simple act of renting to a tenant with a dog is insufficient grounds, by itself, to hold the landlord legally responsible if the dog later bites someone. Under certain conditions, however, a court may find the landlord co-liable. In California, a person seeking to hold a landlord liable for bodily injuries caused by his tenant’s dog must show that one or more of the following conditions prevailed.
- The landlord had actual knowledge that the dog was dangerous. This usually arises because the landlord knew that the tenant’s dog had already threatened or injured someone in the past, but failed to take appropriate action. By leasing or continuing to lease the premises to the tenant despite evidence that the dog had violent tendencies, the landlord knowingly created a clear potential for injury to others. A landlord who fails to act immediately under such circumstances does so at his peril..
- The landlord failed to enforce the lease. For example, the landlord has a strict NO PETS policy. Some time after a tenant moves in, he learns that the tenant now has a dog, but doesn’t enforce the lease by having the dog removed. Since other tenants haven’t complained, he decides to let it slide. The dog then bites a tenant in the building.
- The landlord “kept” or “harbored” the tenant’s dog, that is, cared for or had some actual control over it. For example: the landlord agrees to feed, walk, and otherwise care for a tenant’s dog while he’s away on a business trip. The landlord takes the dog for a walk. The dog runs off and bites someone. As the temporary keeper of the dog, the landlord inherits the same liability as the dog’s actual owner. He becomes the de facto owner.
- The landlord failed to take “due care.” For example, a landlord rents a cottage with a private backyard to a tenant with a dog. The yard is fenced and has a gate opening out onto the sidewalk. The gate doesn’t close properly, but the landlord fails to fix it, even after the defect is brought to his attention. One day, the dog gets out when the owner is not home, and bites someone.
Insurance Coverage for Dog Bites
Most homeowner/landlord liability insurance policies protect the owner against bodily injury caused by a tenant’s dog. Many owners, however, are unaware that renter’s insurance does as well. Renter’s insurance covers not only tenants’ possessions – it also protects them and the landlord if their dog bites someone.
If You Do Allow a Dog, Cover Yourself
Prudent landlords do everything in their power to eliminate or mitigate risk. Allowing a tenant to have a dog does involve some risk; protect yourself by properly screening the dog and its owner. Request a record of all the dog’s vaccinations. Follow the law and enforce your lease. If a problem develops with the dog, take immediate action. Make sure your tenant has renter’s insurance. Check that you’re adequately covered, and avoid higher-risk dog breeds that your insurance policy may exclude from coverage.
Gideon Kramer is the SPOSFI News Editor. Reprinted with permission of the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute (SPOSFI) News. For more information on becoming a member of SPOSFI or to send a tax-deductible donation, please visit their website at www.smallprop.org or call (415) 647-2419.