Dog Bites: My Four-Legged Liability

WHITEBOARD WEDNESDAY (July 5, 2017): Did you know that dog owners are strictly liable for the actions of their dogs? Did you know that employers and landlords can be held responsible for their employee’s/tenant’s dogs? In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday, Matt tackles liability for dog bites…

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Video Transcription

Hi, Matt Quinlan here. Welcome to this week’s edition of #WhiteboardWednesday , where we tackle real-life issues that are our clients face and answer questions that we get from people that call our office. This week we’re gonna be talking about dog responsibility and the level of legal responsibility a person has for their dog. I’m a personal injury lawyer. I get a lot of calls from people that have been bitten by a dog. I agree to represent them and I get in touch with the dog owner and explain what’s going on, explain that my client’s gonna be bringing a claim. And I am shocked the amount of people that have no concept whatsoever of the laws that affect their dog and their responsibility for the dog. So this week we’ve created a Whiteboard Wednesday to educate and inform people about the legal responsibility that they have for their animals.


(1) Dog Owner Responsibility: Strict Liability

So let’s get into it. The first most shocking thing I think that people find is that they are strictly liable for their dog’s bad behavior. If your dog bites somebody, you’re responsible for the damages, fine and simple. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most reasonable dog owner in the world. It doesn’t matter if you took every single precaution. It doesn’t matter that your dog Joe has been so sweet and never even growled at anybody before. If your dog bites somebody or jumps on somebody and knocks him over, injures them in some kind of way, you are gonna be responsible, there is no excuse. So that should really wake you up. You have a animal that you love obviously, but it’s still an animal, it can still be startled, it can still be made angry, and animals bite people. And if that were to happen for you, you’re gonna be held responsible.

Now, what are you gonna do about it if you’re held responsible. Well, you’re gonna get a phone call from somebody like me or an injured person that’s gonna be looking to recover for the dog bite, that had the medical bills that they have, the scar that they might have, the pain and suffering; obviously, that they might have, you’re gonna have probably a hearing with the city that you live in about your dog’s behavior. Obviously, you know, municipalities are not gonna allow animals to be roaming about that are biting people. So you’re gonna find that it’s a lot more complicated than just some little snip that’s no big deal. It is a big deal and you should do what’s necessary to protect yourself.


(2) Homeowners and Renters Insurance Covers Dog Bites

So, how do you that? Well, you get insurance, okay? Renters insurance and homeowners insurance will cover you for your dog’s bad behavior. If your dog bites somebody and, you know, whether it be in your home or whether it be at a dog park or out and about in some kind of way, your renters insurance and your homeowners insurance will cover you for that. They will also pay for an attorney if it’s necessary to defend you in the event you get sued. So having renters insurance or having homeowners insurance is a great thing that covers you financially, so you don’t have to come out of your pocket for the damages. And they will also pay to hire an attorney if it ever came to that. So really, probably the best little…small piece of advice you can have is make sure you have renters insurance or homeowners insurance if you own a dog. It’s really your only kind of buffer in terms of being able to protect your bank account from your dog’s behavior.

Another possible way that we see occasionally is your auto insurance. You know, if you keep your dog in the back of a pickup truck or something like that, we’ve had cases like that before and the dog were to kind of leap out and bite somebody, your auto insurance will cover you for that. If you’re…you know, go out shopping with your dog or you go to a restaurant and you open the door and the dog runs out and bites somebody, or somebody goes to pet your dog through a window and it bites somebody else, your auto insurance will cover you, but the auto really needs to be kind of closely related to the actual incident. They’d be looking to deny this crime if they can, and depending on the factual circumstances, they may be successful. So don’t rely on your auto.


(3) Employer Potential Liability For Dogs at Work

Shifting gears a tiny bit, San Francisco is a very dog-friendly place…friendly place. Obviously, I have a dog, people in my office occasionally bring dogs, and employers can be responsible for their dogs, for their tenant’s dogs biting and attacking people. The standard is different, okay, there’s a negligent standard here, it is not a strict liability thing. So that might seem to give you a little peace of mind, but the fact of the matter is, as a personal injury lawyer, I have and will easily be able to make the argument that you having an animal that’s loose in your place of business, is a negligent act in and of itself.

You know, I’m probably not gonna be held to the standard of showing you knew it was dangerous or should have known it was dangerous. The fact that you have a place of business and you have an animal running around, and it were to bite, you know, a client that came or to bite the delivery man, the mailman, that type of thing, you’re probably gonna be held responsible for that. So you should be aware of it. Now, I as a personal injury lawyer would never go after the employer unless I had to. So I’m gonna go to the owner, the employee first. I know there is strict liability, and in the event they have insurance, you’re probably off the hook, right? But if they don’t have insurance and my client’s injured, I’m gonna be looking to recover from somebody.

So I’m gonna turn to the employer in this instance, and as an employer, I would strongly recommend that if you’re gonna allow your employees to bring their dog to work, make sure that they have insurance, okay? Now, renters or homeowners insurance will cover them and that would keep you from being, you know, held responsible for something that your employee’s dog does.


(4) Landlords Potential Liability for Tenant’s Dog

Along these same lines, a landlord, San Francisco obviously has lot of rental units. I read a statistic somewhere that there are over 200,000 dogs in San Francisco alone. So, obviously a lot of these, you know, people that are renting also own dogs and landlords can be held responsible.

Again, the only reason a personal injury lawyer or an injured client would wanna go after a landlord is if the tenant didn’t have renters or homeowners insurance, because it’s really all about finding a place to recover from. So if they, you know, reach out to the…to the dog owner, the tenant, find that they don’t have insurance and we find out that they’re renting, we are then going to turn our attention to the landlord. And the standard is a bit different, it’s a bit more difficult to establish the liability, but is doable and we’ve done it.

Here’s how it goes. You have to establish that the landlord had knowledge of the dog’s presence. Okay, so obviously if it’s in the lease, if they knew that you had a dog when they rented the place to you, then the landlord is gonna have knowledge of this. If you had, you know, dog bowls and toys, kind of out and about and your landlord had been over to your house and it’s obvious that I can establish notice, if anybody ever complained about your dog, that will establish notice. This is usually not that difficult to do. But if the tenant’s friends bring a dog over or something like that, the landlord is not responsible for that.

You also have to establish that the dog was dangerous and that you knew it as a landlord. It’s called dangerous propensity or vicious propensity, and that means basically that you have to be able to appreciate and know that the dog posed a risk, all right? So, you know, most of the time I’d say the landlord probably doesn’t have actual notice that the dog had bitten somebody before or that the dog, you know, was necessarily likely to bite somebody, but that doesn’t mean that you didn’t have notice of the dog’s dangerous propensity because you can establish this through showing the breed and the size of the dog. One of the other or a combination: big dogs, obviously more dangerous than a small dog, or some breeds, if you have a German Shepherd, a pit bull, a Doberman Pinscher, some sort of dog that has a reputation for being aggressive. The courts have held that you can use that to establish that the landlord in fact did have notice of the dangerous propensity of the animal and then you can also use the way that the dog is kept to establish it. If there’s a big kennel out back that you know the tenant puts the dog in when guests come over or something like that. Obviously that would, you know, lend a strong inference that the dog was dangerous and that the renter or the tenant was aware of that, wanted to avoid that encounter. So you can use that to establish dangerous propensity as well.

And then lastly, you need the ability to terminate the lease. So, you know, this is probably the easiest prong of this kind of three-prong requirement test. You know, if you want to mop them up, obviously you can get rid of the dog. If you didn’t give the tenant permission to have the dog in the first place and you learn that there’s a dog there, you can terminate the lease. So as long as the landlord has the ability to terminate the lease, this last requirement will in fact be met. And you can establish a claim against the landlord’s insurance company, who invariably is gonna have homeowners insurance, and then, you know, you find yourself suing the landlord, the landlord is defending themselves, it creates quite a bit of tension between you and the tenant. And for that reason I would recommend, in a way similar to what an employer would do, is require your tenants to carry renters insurance. Could maybe, make that part of the lease, a term, you know, right? So it’s like, “Yeah, sure you can have the dog here as long as once a year, you know, you send me a copy of your renters agreement that covers your dog.” And so that would be something that would kind of keep the spotlight off of you in the event that your tenant’s dog were to bite somebody.

So that’s kind of the structure of things, that’s how it works. If you’re a dog owner, you know, be made aware, you’re strictly liable, get insurance. If you’re an employer…employer rather, and you have employees that bring their dog to work, well, maybe you should make sure that they have renters insurance because you can be sued otherwise. And if you are a landlord and you’re renting to people that you know have dogs, understand that you might be sued. Again, my recommendation will be require your tenant to have renters insurance and that will keep…you know, for all intents and purposes, will keep the claims off you.

So there you have it. Hopefully you learned something this week. Kind of the goal was to raise awareness among dog owners. I’m a dog owner. And we wanna make sure that you know kind of what you’re facing as it relates to your dog’s bad behavior.

I appreciate you watching and I look forward to seeing you again next week on Whiteboard Wednesday.