The answer to this question is yes, but only under particular circumstances. The Illinois Animal Control Act, commonly referred to as the Illinois Dog Bite Statute, controls when a person is liable for injuries caused by a dog or other animal. The central portion of the Act states:
If a dog or other animal, without provocation, attacks, attempts to attack, or injures any person who is peaceably conducting himself or herself in any place where he or she may lawfully be, the owner of such dog or other animal is liable in civil damages to such person for the full amount of the injury proximately caused thereby.
510 ILCS 5/2.16 (West 2015), emphasis added.
The Illinois Dog Bite Act further defines “owner” as “any person having a right of property in an animal, or who keeps or harbors an animal, or who has it in his care, or acts as its custodian, or who knowingly permits a dog to remain on any premises occupied by him or her.” 510 ILCS 5/2.16 (West 2015). Therefore, the Act defines owner broadly enough to encompass those who care for, exert control over, or house a dog.
A recent Illinois case provides a great illustration of when a landlord can be held liable for damages caused by a tenant’s dog. In Whittin v. Luck, tenants rented a house where the lease specifically stated that no pets were allowed in the house. 2014 IL App (5th) 120513 (2014). Despite the provision in the lease, the landlord allowed the tenants to keep their dog in a barn on the property that was not covered by the lease. The landlord would often go to the barn for tools and other items he stored there, but never fed or interacted with the dog. One day, the dog ran onto a road and was hit by a motorcyclist who died in the accident. The motorcyclist’s estate brought suit against the landlord.
The court ruled that the owner was not responsible for the actions of the dog, finding that the landlord did not exert enough control over the dog to warrant a finding that he “harbored” the dog. However, the court was split in this finding, with the dissent forcefully arguing for liability. The dissent argued that the landlord “harbored” the dog because he decided where the dog could live and was responsible for maintaining the barn.
In short, a landlord can be liable for a tenant’s dog when he exerts control over the dog by feeding the dog, caring for the dog, or by establishing particular rules about the dog’s presence on his property. However, the courts generally require that such control be substantial before finding a landlord liable.
How Common Are Dog Bite Injuries?
According to the Canine Journal, there are approximately 4.7 million dog bites each year in the U.S. Of these dog bites, an estimated 800,000 dog bites require medical care to treat. In more understandable terms, one person out of every 69 people in the United States gets bitten by a dog each year.
Common Dog Bite Injuries
It is easy to dismiss the severity of a dog bite injury, especially since many people may experience their dog playfully nipping at them and think of it as nothing. However, dog bite injuries can range from mild cuts to more severe and life-long injuries.
- Head injuries
- Facial trauma
- Broken bones
Ways Landlords Can Protect Themselves
To prevent legal responsibility, there are some steps that landlords can take to better protect themselves against possible lawsuits related to tenant dogs. While some of these strategies can be applied to a variety of leasing situations, you will need to consider your own tenants and the market conditions where you live to know which strategies are most viable in your particular situation.
Consider a “No Pets Allowed” Policy
For the highest level of protection and to limit the possible property damage a tenant dog could cause, a landlord could decide not to allow any tenant pets on the property. Many property management companies do not allow pets and are able to thrive despite these restrictions. This does limit the number of potential tenants to people who don’t own pets. In competitive markets, where housing is limited and there are many tenants looking for a place to rent, this may not adversely impact rental rates.
In markets where landlords face difficulty filling every available rental, it might be more difficult to have a firm no pet policy. In these cases, landlords can charge a pet fee. Some landlords charge pet fees up to $500 a year, with some portion of the fee being refundable to the tenant at the end of the lease term depending on the condition of the apartment. The higher the pet fee, the more likely some pet owners will choose a more affordable place to live with their pets.
Do Not Provide Care for Tenant Pets
If you do allow for your tenants to have pets, do not provide care for tenant pets in any capacity. Also, try to limit where pets can go. For instance, pets should be limited to space where the tenant leased and under the tenant’s supervision in shared spaces. Many landlords heavily restrict where dogs can go in shared spaces.
Outline Liability in Lease
Be sure to outline liability for the dog’s action to the tenant in the lease. Since the lease is a legal document, it is a good place to outline responsibility for the dog. Avoid using generic copy about your pet policy in the lease in favor of one with more specific guidelines.
If you or a loved one has suffered injuries from a dog, contact the Kryder Law Group for your free consultation.