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Is a Landlord Liable if a Tenant’s Dog Bites Someone on Their Property?

The North Carolina Supreme Court has clarified the issue saying that a dog bite victim must show that the landlord had knowledge that the tenant’s dog posed a danger; and that the landlord had control over the dangerous dog’s presence on the property.

The Incident

The eight-year-old Plaintiff, Joshua Stephens was bitten repeatedly by a Rottweiler owned by tenants of the Defendant landlord, sustaining “extremely severe” injuries to both his shoulder and leg. Although the landlord had, prior to the bite, contacted animal control and inquired about safety of this specific dog and had erected a fence in the backyard and posted signs reading “Beware of Dog,” Stephens was still unable to show that the landlord had any knowledge that the tenants’ dog was dangerous and that the landlord had any control over the dog.

The tenants leased a home in Wilmington, North Carolina, from the Defendants. Because the houses in the neighborhood were close together, the Defendants, knowing the tenants owned a Rottweiler, contacted animal control regarding safety measures that should be taken. Animal control recommended fencing the yard and posting signs “Beware of Dog.” On January 25, 1996, when Plaintiff was eight-years-old, he visited the tenants son and entered the gate to the tenant’s back yard. The dog almost immediately attacked the Plaintiff’s lower leg and shoulder. A neighbor was able to pull Plaintiff over the fence to safety after the tenants beat the dog with a stick. The dog was later euthanized at the request of the tenants.

The Lawsuit

When the Plaintiff reached majority age, he filed suit against both landlord and tenants. Ultimately a verdict of $500,000.00 was reached against the dog’s owners, the tenants, but the trial court granted summary judgment for the Defendant landlord, holding that a third party victim who is seeking to recover damages from a landlord for an attack by a dog owned by a tenant must specifically establish both: (1) that the landlord had knowledge that a tenant’s dog posed a danger; and (2) that the landlord had control over the dangerous dog’s presence on the property in order to be held liable for the dog attacking a third party.

Stephens appealed, citing Holcomb v. Colonial Assocs., LLC., (358 N.C. 510, 2004) which had previously found a landlord liable for a tenant’s Rottweiler’s aggression. The North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment and held that, unlike Holcomb, where the landlord knew of previous aggression by the Rottweiler and placed a provision in the lease which allowed the landlord to have the dog removed, the landlord in this case at hand had no knowledge of the dog’s previous aggression and had no authority or control over the dog.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that in Holcombe, there was undisputed evidence that the landlord had direct knowledge of the dogs’ previous attacks and dangerous propensities. Regarding the current case, the Court found no evidence that the landlord Defendants knew or had reason to know that the dog was dangerous. All measures taken regarding contacting animal control, raising the fence and posting warning signage were reasoned as wise and reasonable precautions for any dog and were viewed by the Court in a positive light. The Court also noted that, prior to the attack, there had been neither any reported incidents of aggression nor complaints about the dog to either Animal Control or to the Defendants.

If you or a loved one has been bitten by a dog belonging to someone else, contact an experienced attorney at Grimes Teich Anderson LLP who can answer questions you may have. For a free case evaluation call today 1-800-533-6845.

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