This legal guide will provide the reader with an overview of California law as it relates to landlords’ liability for their tenants’ dog that bites someone. This legal guide will use all applicable and current case law as it relates to this subject.
Theories of Liability
Generally speaking, a landlord is not, per se, liable for the actions of a tenant’s dog when it bites someone. However, there are exceptions to this general rule. Various California courts have found liability on the part of the landlord in fact-specific situations. For example, a landlord caring for a tenant’s dog while the tenant was away may inculpate the landlord under a negligence theory if the dog bites someone or if the landlord failed to repair a gate on the property and the dog escaped and bit someone the landlord may likewise be liable under a negligence theory.
Duty of Residential Landlords
In Uccello v. Laudenslayer (1975) 44 Cal.App.3d 504, the court found that if a landlord or his agent had actual knowledge of a tenant’s dog’s viciousness and could have removed that dog before it bit someone then the landlord can be held liable. The court held that "a duty of care may not be imposed on a landlord without proof that he knew of the dog and its dangerous propensities. Because the harboring of pets is such an important part of our way of life and because the exclusive possession of rented premises normally is vested in the tenant, we believe that actual knowledge and not mere constructive knowledge is required. For this reason we hold that a landlord is under no duty to inspect the premises for the purpose of discovering the existence of a tenant's dangerous animal; only when the landlord has actual knowledge of the animal, coupled with the right to have it removed from the premises, does a duty of care arise." Keep in mind that landlord liability can be found where the bite happens off of the rented property. In Donchin v. Guerrero (1995) 34 Cal.App.4th 1832, the plaintiff was bitten by a tenant’s dog approximately four blocks from the property. The plaintiff sought recovery from both the tenant and the landlord. The court stated: "If the dog is taken on a leash by its owner, off the premises, prevention of an attack by the dog may be beyond the landlord's control. But if the dog escapes the landlord's property because of defects in that property, the landlord is liable for the off-site injuries." Thus, as mentioned above, a landlord must repair dilapidations on the property that may allow a dog to escape and cause injury, if not, he may be liable for damages caused by the dog.
Duty of Commercial Landlords
A commercial landlord may be held liable for a dog bite if he had actual or constructive knowledge of the dog's propensity for violence before the attack, and could have removed the dog prior to it harming the plaintiff. In Portillo v. Aiassa (1994) 27 Cal.App.4th 1128, the court remarked: "We hold that a landlord has a duty to exercise reasonable care in the inspection of his commercial property and to remove a dangerous condition, which includes a dog, from the premises, if he knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care would have known, the dog was dangerous and usually present on the premises." A landlord could not escape liability by failing to inspect the property and then asserting that he had no actual knowledge of the vicious dog.
A residential landlord does not have a duty to inspect the premises for vicious dogs owned by the tenant. A commercial landlord does have this duty. That is why a residential landlord must have actual knowledge of the dog’s violent propensities while a commercial landlord must have either actual or constructive knowledge.
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