Landlord not bitten for dog bite

By David Evenhuis, Esq.

In a recent case1 where a pit bull bit off part of a child's nose while inside of a leased trailer, the Pennsylvania Superior Court declined to hold the tenant's landlord liable for the injuries. The case turned on whether the victim could prove the landlord had actual knowledge of the dog's alleged "dangerous propensity" - the likelihood or tendency to endanger the safety of others.

The victim, a 10 year-old boy, went with his grandparents to choose a puppy from a new litter, born just hours before to a pit bull owned by the tenant's girlfriend. With a newborn puppy in his lap, the dog's mother came over and licked the boy's knee and hand. Both were focused on the puppy when, looking up at each other, the dog's mother grabbed hold of the boy's nose. The girlfriend pulled the dog back but it had already taken out a chunk of flesh.

Following the incident, the boy's mother brought a negligence action against the tenant's girlfriend and the landlord. The mother claimed the dog was dangerous and that the landlord permitted the tenant and girlfriend to keep a vicious animal without warning others. The trial court didn't agree. It granted summary judgment for the landlord, finding no proof that the landlord had knowledge of the dog's alleged dangerous propensity.

While dog owners may be found liable for bite-related injuries in Pennsylvania, a victim must prove that an owner was negligent. To impose liability on a third party is even harder. In order to sustain a case against a landlord for injuries caused by a tenant's dog, a victim must prove that the landlord owed the victim a duty of care, the landlord breached the duty, and the breach caused the injuries.

On appeal, the Superior Court ruled, furthermore, that a landlord doesn't owe a victim a duty of care unless the landlord had actual knowledge of an animal's dangerous propensity. The court noted, however, that even if a landlord knows of a danger, he faces no liability for attacks where a tenant has exclusive control over the premises. A landlord has a duty to protect a potential victim only where, 1) the landlord knows of tenant's dangerous animal, and 2) the landlord has some right to remove the animal or retake the premises.

The court acknowledged that the victim had presented evidence showing the dog may have been afflicted with a jaw clenching problem but it was not enough to prove a dangerous propensity. Even with genuine questions as to the dog's temperament, the victim failed to demonstrate that the landlord knew of any dangers. Absent such proof, the landlord had no duty to warn others or remove the dog.

The decision doesn't immunize landlords from tenant dog bite liability but it makes clear that victims face a heavy burden when attempting to hold landlords responsible. Other factors are also relevant, as well. In this case, the tenant's trailer was surrounded by open land and there were no prior complaints of viciousness. The landlord may not even have seen the dog or noticed any jaw clenching. The facts of each situation are different but, if notified that a tenant may have a dangerous animal, landlords still are advised to attempt some precautionary measures.

David Evenhuis is an attorney with Caldwell & Kearns, which serves as general counsel to PAR. His practice focuses on litigation, dispute resolution and representing the interests of real estate licensees. He may be reached at [email protected]

[1] Rosenberry v. Evans, 2012 PA Super 91 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2012).