Dog Bites Can Cause Serious Injuries
When a person is attacked by a dog, they can have many injuries and losses which would include medical expenses, lost wages, and scarring. In a serious dog attack, the medical bills alone can be tens of thousands of dollars and the person may have a lifelong physical consequences. The person who owns the dog can be responsible for these losses.
Sometimes, the owner of the dog doesn’t have insurance to cover the claim. If there is no insurance, the owner would be responsible for paying any verdict out of their pocket. Unfortunately, many dog owners, especially those who rent, do not have the financial means to compensate the person who is injured. An injured person might obtain a judgment, but if they do not have the financial resources to pay the judgment, it might never be paid. In these situations, the injured person may not recover some or any of their losses.
When is a Landlord Liable?
In Holcomb v. Colonial Associates, 597 S.E.2d 710, 358 N.C. 501 (2004) the NC Supreme Court expanded liability for vicious dogs in some situations to landlords of the property where the dogs are kept. Under Holcomb, if a landlord retains the right to force the tenant to remove the dangerous dogs specified in their lease (i.e. retains control), and the landlord knows or should have known of the dog’s vicious propensities, then the landlord can be held liable for the victim’s damages.
A few years ago, Ruth Smith litigated a case involving a young woman who was viciously attacked at an apartment complex by an unneutered male pit bull dog which weighed over 100 lbs. The client was standing outside an apartment in a common area when the dog pushed through a flimsy screen door and attacked her.
The owner of the dog, who had no job and later moved from the apartment into his van, had no financial way of compensating the client for her medical bills, her time off from work, and the permanent injuries she would have for life. Meanwhile, the dog owner’s landlord had insurance which could pay for these losses.
The landlord admittedly knew that the tenant was keeping the pit bull in the small one bedroom apartment. The landlord admittedly knew the dog was kept as a guard dog. The landlord admittedly knew that pit bull dogs were potentially dangerous to others. The landlord admittedly knew there were no fences, chains or other restraints on the dog. Finally, the landlord, in the lease with the dog owner, kept the ability to have dangerous animals removed from the apartment simply by requesting it be done. The landlord allowed the pit bull to stay in this small apartment despite his knowledge and ability to do something about the situation.
In this case, Ruth Smith was able to obtain compensation for the client from the landlord’s insurance company.
Some persons object to the landlord being liable for a dog they do not own, but the legal reasoning in Holcomb is more in line with premises liability: that a land owner has a duty to others to keep his premises reasonably safe. It makes sense, then, that if a landowner can be liable for an unsafe stair case that they knew about and didn’t fix, they can be liable for a dangerous dog that they knew about and didn’t remove.