Landlords Hounds The Law

By Stephen D. Pahl and Servando R. Sandoval
Pahl & McCay
160 West Santa Clara Street, 14th Floor
San Jose, California 95113
408/286-5100 (phone); 408/286-5722 (fax);

Please understand that the information discussed in this Article is general in nature and is not intended to be legal advice. It is intended to assist owners and managers in understanding this issue area, but it may not apply to the specific fact circumstances or business situations of all owners and managers. You may need to consult applicable state and local laws. For specific legal advice, consult your attorney.

In light of the recent events in San Francisco which have made national headlines, landlords and residential managers might wonder what liability, if any, they may face if a dog belonging to one of their tenants bites another person on the property. Generally, a landlord may be liable to third parties if a dog belonging to a tenant causes injury to another person on the rental premises if it can be shown that:

1) the dog was dangerous or vicious; 2) the landlord actually knew (or should have known) of the dog’s presence and dangerous propensities; and 3) the landlord had control over the premises (or at least where the dog was kept), had the right to have the dog removed or confined, or the landlord had the ability to terminate the tenancy. (emphasis added).

Uccello v. Laudenslayer, 44 Cal. App. 3d 504 (1975). All three factors above must be shown before liability will be imposed on the landlord.

The required showing that the dog was vicious or dangerous is interrelated to the second factor, which requires that the landlord must have knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensities. There must be some evidence that the landlord either knew or should have known that the dog posed a foreseeable risk of harm to others. Evidence that the landlord had previously observed the dog threatening, lunging at others, snapping, growling, or acting ferocious might be sufficient. Some cases have held that a landlord who frequently visited the premises where the dog was kept may also be sufficient to show that the landlord should have known that the dog was vicious or dangerous. Neither the size of the dog nor the breed of the dog, however, is sufficient to show knowledge on behalf of the landlord regarding the dog’s vicious propensities. The landlord must have actual knowledge of the animal’s dangerous propensities for liability to be imposed. While a residential landlord has no duty to inspect the premises to discover the presence of a dangerous dog on the property, some courts will impose liability where the circumstances are such that the landlord must have known of a tenant’s dangerous animal.

Even if a landlord has actual knowledge of a tenant’s dangerous animal on the premises, liability will not be imposed unless the landlord had the power to do something about the dangerous condition, i.e., the ability to prevent the foreseeable harm. In cases of dangerous dogs, that potential power is found in whatever rights the landlord may have to insist the tenant remove the dog from the rental premises or ensure that the property is secured so the dog does not pose a harm to other persons on the property. To the extent that the landlord has the right to terminate the tenancy, the landlord has sufficient power over the condition to warrant the imposition of liability. If the landlord can show, however, that the tenancy was month to month, and the injury occurred before the landlord could terminate the tenancy, i.e., before the thirty (30) days expired, the landlord may be able to avoid liability.

The landlord may also be held liable for attacks by a vicious dog, if the injuries are sustained off the rental premises. Some cases have imposed liability where dogs escape from the rental premises as a result of a defective fence. In these circumstances, The landlord must ensure that the tenant restrains the dog or repair the defective fence to prevent the dog from escaping. Additionally, if the landlord can show that the lease gave the tenant exclusive control of the premises, thereby showing that the tenant, rather than the landlord, was responsible for maintaining the premises in a safe condition, the landlord may avoid liability.

In summary, if a landlord or property manager has knowledge that a vicious or dangerous dog is on the rental premises, the landlord or property manager must take precautionary measures to avoid imposition of liability. The landlord, if possible, should terminate the tenancy. Alternatively, the landlord or manager if applicable must take steps to prevent the dog from causing injury to other persons on the rental premises. This may be accomplished by requiring the tenant to keep the dog on a leash or by requiring that the dog be secured behind a fenced area. If the tenant fails to comply with the landlord’s instructions, the landlord must take extra precautions, including terminating the tenancy.