April 1, 2005
“The sweetest dog in the world,” is how they described their pit bull. Sure it is, to their children and to them. Did you know that most insurance companies today won’t provide liability insurance for homes that have pit bulls? Why do you suppose that is?
According to Consumerwatchdog.org insurance companies also won’t insure properties where Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, Akitas, chows, Presa Canarios and wolf-hybrids live. Yet I’ll bet prospective tenants call you regularly who own one of those. And their dog is always “the sweetest dog in the world.”
What did you expect them to say, “Our dog just tore the leg off a Chihuahua”?
Several insurance companies on the internet even sell liability insurance for “dangerous breeds.”
The Insurance Council of New Jersey reports that “the following purebreds have been responsible for the greatest number of dog bite-related fatalities over the 20-year period, 1979 to 1998, according to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention.”
German Shepherd Dog
What does that mean to you as a landlord? Suppose you rent to a tenant with one of the breeds above? Suppose further that “the sweetest dog in the world” bites someone. The tenant doesn’t have any money or assets to go after, so the bitee or the bitee’s lawyers look for someone who does. The property owner—you—have assets the lawyer can go after. In legal lingo that is called “deep pockets.”
The attorneys won’t even bother with the tenant, except perfunctorily by naming him in the lawsuit; they will go after you and your property. How can you be at fault? In the world of common sense, you aren’t. In the world of trial lawyers and multi-million dollar verdicts it is all your fault.
For you to be liable there has to be culpability. Culpability comes in four flavors, intent, knowledge, recklessness and negligence. You could qualify under two of those flavors, knowledge and negligence. If you rented to a tenant with one of the dog breeds listed above, you could be said to have had both knowledge that the dog was probably dangerous and were negligent in allowing that breed of dog in your property.
Chances are, though, in most states you would be sued under “strict liability.” Under that legal concept a plaintiff does not ordinarily need to show that you were at fault, only that your renting to a tenant with a “dangerous dog” was unreasonably dangerous, and plaintiff’s injuries were the result.
The “sweetest dog in the world” could end up being the bitterest lesson you ever learned, if you rent to a tenant with a dangerous dog.