This guide summarizes a recent NC Court of Appeals concerning a residential tenant's dog biting a third person and the landlord's possible liability.
Recent Case Law
Stephens v. Covington (NO. COA13-431), is a recent case from the North Carolina Court of Appeals which arose out of New Hanover County. This case involves a minor child who was a visitor of the tenants renting the residential property under a lease with an option to purchase. The attack took place before the tenants purchased the property. The tenants were the owners of a Rottweiler named Rocky. The landlord knew the tenants owned the Rottweiler and was aware it was living at the property. The landlord asked the tenant to contact animal control to seek advice on how to erect a fence around a portion of the property to contain the dog. Upon recommendation of Animal Control and as a precaution, the tenants erected a fence in the backyard and posted "Beware of Dog" and "No Trespassing" signs along the fence. Plaintiff heavily relied on Holcomb v. Colonial Assocs., L.L.C., in which the North Carolina Supreme Court held, under the premises liability theory, that a landlord could be held liable in a dog attack if the lease contains a provision which grants the landlord sufficient control to remove the danger posed by a tenant's dogs. In Stephens v. Covington, the Court of Appeals expounded upon the meaning of sufficient control. The Court of Appeals found that a plaintiff must establish that (1) the landlord had knowledge that a tenant's dog posed a danger and (2) that the landlord had control over the dog's presence on the property. The Court of Appeals found there was no evidence to support that the landlord knew, or had reason to know, that the dog was dangerous and there was no evidence at trial suggesting that the particular breed of dog, Rottweiler, was inherently dangerous. The dog had no history of prior attacks and neither the landlord nor Animal Control was aware of any complaints about the dog.
How to Shield Yourself From Liability
If you, your company, or the owner of residential property allows pets, you need to have a pet policy either outlined in the lease agreement or attached as an addendum to the lease agreement in addition to a non-refundable pet deposit. The language of the policy needs to outline that the tenant is not aware of any instance of an attack and that the tenant will, within 24 hours of learning of an attack or other violent behavior, inform the landlord in writing of the dog's behavior. The goal is to minimize any potential liability as much as possible. As indicated by this case, there will be no liability if the landlord does not know or have reason to know. You may also want to consider using broad general language as to dangerous dogs rather than naming particular breeds of dogs. Also include language that this pet policy is an essential part of the lease and a breach of any obligation contained within the policy is an event of default.
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