Dog-Bite Liability: What Did the Landlord Know and When Did He Know It?
By John R. Nealon, Esq.*
A Pennsylvania landlord may be responsible for injuries inflicted by a tenant's animal. Any liability will stem from the landlord's prior actual knowledge of the animal's violent propensities.
Actual knowledge of violent propensities can be established by either direct evidence or inferred from the circumstances. However, whether the knowledge of a landlord's employee will be considered the knowledge of the landlord remains an open question.
In a negligence action arising from a dog bite, it is the animal's owner who is held responsible, if anyone, for the injuries sustained. We say "if anyone" because Pennsylvania does not impose strict liability on a pet owner for the bites of his or her animals. Proof of the pet owner's negligence is required.
There are, however, circumstances under which others in control of either the animal, or of the premises where the bite occurred, can be held responsible. The question of when a landlord can be held responsible for a bite from a tenant's dog was recently revisited in the Pennsylvania Superior Court case of Rosenberry v. Miller, 48 A.3d 1255 (2012).
The Rosenberry case arose when ten-year-old Alexander Prince was bitten by a pit bull housed at a leased property rented by Mitchell King from Robert Miller, the landlord. The dog in question had recently had a litter of puppies. When the child was playing with one of the puppies, the mother pit bull bit the boy's nose, causing substantial facial injuries.
Even before Rosenberry, Pennsylvania recognized a cause of action against a landlord for negligence if the landlord failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent injuries by a tenant's animal. Liability could be imposed, however, only if the landlord had knowledge that the dangerous animal was being harbored on the property. Since Rosenberry, we now know that the landlord's knowledge must be "actual" knowledge. "Should have known" is not enough to hold a landlord responsible for the acts of a dangerous dog. A landlord's legal duty is not triggered unless he or she has actual notice that a dangerous animal is being harbored by a tenant and does nothing.
How is an injured party to show actual knowledge of a dangerous animal on the part of a landlord? Rosenberry suggests it can be done in one of two ways. The first and obvious way is via direct evidence. Testimony or documentation can, of course, establish actual knowledge.
The more difficult way to show actual knowledge, and the likely area where Rosenberry will be tested, is to establish it by inference. A landlord's knowledge of a dog's violent propensities may be inferred from the facts and circumstances. There must be a reasonable basis for such an inference from the facts presented. In other words, it is not enough for a judge or jury to conclude that a landlord should have known the animal was dangerous; they can, however, conclude that, based on inferences taken from the evidence, the landlord did know the animal was dangerous, even if the landlord's testimony suggests otherwise.
Rosenberry is also important because it addresses, although not conclusively, the question of whether direct knowledge of the violent tendencies of a tenant's animal on the part of a landlord's agent or employee is enough to hold a landlord responsible for a bite. Is the employee's direct knowledge of the animal considered equivalent to the direct knowledge of the landlord? Prior to Rosenberry, Pennsylvania courts had not addressed whether the so called "imputed knowledge" of an agent was sufficient to satisfy the actual knowledge requirement for a landlord to be held responsible.
The plaintiffs in Rosenberry argued that another defendant, Dale Cannon, was an employee of the landlord and that he had actual knowledge that the pit bull was dangerous. They argued that since the knowledge of an employee may be imputed to a principal, Cannon's knowledge was equivalent to the landlord's knowledge. In response, the Superior Court pointed out that the factual record reflected that Cannon was a handyman who did odd jobs for the landlord and was not a property manager. The record was also clear that, while Cannon had potentially witnessed the dog habitually clenching its teeth, he never perceived that act as an indication of a violent temperament, but merely a simple "tic." The injured child was Cannon's grandson, who was taken to visit the puppies by Cannon. Mr. Cannon testified that he never would have allowed his grandson around the animal if he thought that the dog was dangerous. In short, the Superior Court reasoned that, even if it was appropriate to consider Cannon's knowledge as equivalent to the landlord's knowledge, it didn't matter--Cannon's knowledge was not actual knowledge that the dog was a dangerous animal.
The Superior Court leaves us to speculate whether its ruling would have been different had Cannon been a true property manager acting on behalf of the landlord with administrative authority. What is clear is that, in the wake of Rosenberry, when evaluating the merits of dog bite cases, both plaintiffs and defendants must acknowledge that the landlord is a potential party to the case (albeit a party against whom the plaintiff will have an uphill battle). As it now stands, even if the landlord should have known his or her tenant had a vicious dog, for purposes of civil liability, it only matters what he or she actually knew, and when he or she knew it.
*John is a shareholder in our Scranton, Pennsylvania office. He can be reached at 570-496-4605 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Defense Digest, Vol. 19, No. 2, June 2013