Landlord Liability When a Tenant’s Dog Bites Someone

Written on July 19, 2016 by , updated on December 9, 2016

Dog BitesThere’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.

Related:

Sample Lease Clause

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.

Related: Find a Rock-Solid Rental Lease and Stick To It

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.

Related: The Definitive Guide to Renting to Tenants with Pets

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.

Take Precautions

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.

Related: 10 Best Practices to Prevent Tenant Lawsuits

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6 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • carto

    Very interesting article with some good issues to check on for state specific research.
    I would be interested to know what to do if the tenants’ dog bites a worker or someone I send to the property to do repairs. Has anyone got experience with that scenario?

    My only concern about the article is it mentions a specific type of dog. What I know about animals is: the ones with mouths can bite. Breed or type of dog matters less than how it has been raised or trained. Any breed can become dangerous.
    Avoid writing breed-specific contracts.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Carto,
      I’m not a lawyer, but I believe the scenario you bring up falls under the landlord-not-being-responsible category. The difference would be if the landlord knew there was a dangerous dog on the premises and did not take precautions before letting a repair person in.
      Regarding my mentioning a pit bull in the post, that was only a scenario. I agree that pit bulls can be wonderful dogs if trained and cared for properly. They were bred, however, to fight other dogs, so their nature is different from, say, a Labrador retriever.

  • Brian

    How much liability coverage should you require your renters to have in their renters insurance policy? I saw a statistic online that said State Farms average pet related claim was $25k. But I’ve seen leases where the tenant is required to have $200k + of liability coverage. What’s the right amount of coverage?

  • Eunice

    I just found out through the gardener that my new tenant lied about having a dog and has two, a Chihuahua and a Pit bull. She only said that she had a Chihuahua and paid a $200 pet deposit but specifically said that she only had one. I don’t mind her having a second dog but want to take precautions. Please advice (in your opinion):
    1- I have a Renter’s Insurance clause. Can I require proof of renter’s insurance? because she
    has a pitt bull, is there a specific amount that she should be covered for?

    2- Can I require proof of the dogs being registered and proof of shots?

    3- If I were to raiser her rent due to the second dog, what is appropriate? Should I have her
    sign a new lease?

  • Holly

    I moved in with my father briefly while looking for a house in that area. One of his dogs bit me, which wasn’t very serious. But a few weeks later the same dog attacked me and I ended up being hospitalized. The insurance company said they aren’t sure if they will cover since I’m family, the dog bit me before, and I was living here.

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