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Are Landlords and Property Managers Responsible When a Tenant’s Dog Causes Injuries that Contribute to a Guest’s Death?

Many landlords allow their tenants to own dogs—a situation that can, in extreme cases, lead to injury or death because of a dog’s behavior. In the case of Brown v. Woldszynek, Regency Canterfield, LLC, and Michelson Realty Company, LLC, the Illinois appellate court addresses whether property owners and/or property managers are responsible when a tenant’s dog causes injuries that result in the death of a guest who is visiting another tenant in the complex.

The Facts

Mr. Brown leased an apartment in a complex owned by Regency Canterfield, LLC and managed by Michelson Realty Company, LLC. Tenants living in the complex were allowed to own dogs under the condition that they follow the “community rules” referenced in their leases. The rules included the provision that pets would be removed if they were excessively noisy or displayed “aggressive behavior.” Additionally, the community rules required pets to be leashed while outdoors.

Two separate incidents are relevant to the Brown case. In September 2012, Ms. Woldszynek, who also lived in the complex, was walking her dog, Abby, past Mr. Brown’s apartment. When his two small dogs began barking inside, Abby approached the apartment door, scratched it, and ripped the screen. It is unknown whether this was an act of aggression toward Mr. Brown’s dogs; however, it is certain that Abby did not bite the dogs. The manager contacted Ms. Woldszynek and asked her to pay for the damaged screen, which she and her husband agreed to do. However, the manager did not ask them to remove their dog from the complex.

Approximately nine months later, on June 19, 2013, Mr. Brown was entertaining a guest in his apartment when Ms. Woldszynek’s grandson opened her apartment door. Abby escaped and ran toward Mr. Brown’s apartment. Ms. Woldszynek says she called the dog and followed her to Mr. Brown’s apartment, where Abby began scratching at the screen door. As Ms. Woldszynek approached, she saw someone inside of the apartment shut the sliding glass door that was located immediately behind the screen door. Ms. Woldszynek claims she grabbed her dog by the collar and took her home, contending that Abby did not enter Mr. Brown’s apartment. However, Mr. Brown says the dog came into his apartment and knocked over his guest, causing injuries that ultimately led to her death.

Mr. Brown filed a lawsuit against the landlord and property manager, alleging that Regency and Michelson had a duty to remove Abby from the complex by enforcing the community rules and had failed to do so.

Landlord Responsibility for a Tenant’s Dog Causing Injuries to Others

In Illinois, a landlord is only responsible for an injury caused by a tenant’s dog when the landlord has a duty to take action and fails to fulfill that duty.

Landlords have a duty to take action when they retain a degree of control over the premises that allows them to act. Reserving the right to exclude troublesome pets is a sufficient degree of control to satisfy this element.

In addition to retaining a sufficient degree of control over the premises, landlords must also have knowledge that the pet was previously vicious towards humans.

Finally, even with a sufficient degree of control and knowledge of the animal’s viciousness, the court will consider a number of factors to determine whether there was a duty to take action in a specific situation. These factors include the likelihood of the dog causing an injury, the extent to which safeguarding against injury creates a burden for landlords/property managers, and the desirability of placing this burden on landlords/property managers.

The Decision

Regency and Michelson asked the trial court to grant them a summary judgment, arguing that the evidence presented by Mr. Brown was inadequate for a jury to find in his favor even under the most lenient interpretation.

The trial court agreed and dismissed the case, saying there was no evidence that Ms. Woldszynek’s dog had made direct contact with Mr. Brown’s guest. Instead, the court contended, the guest fell because she was “alarmed” by Abby. The court also noted that during the previous incident involving Abby, in which she ripped Mr. Brown’s screen, the nature of contact between the dogs was unclear; furthermore, Abby did not harm a human during that incident. Additionally, the court said that Michelson had no control over Ms. Woldszynek’s grandson opening the door and letting the dog out. The court concluded there was no legal basis upon which to hold either the landlord or property manager liable.

Mr. Brown appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, arguing that the trial court erred in stating Regency and Michelson had no duty to enforce the policies contained in the lease’s community rules.

In reviewing the case, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision to dismiss since there was no evidence that Abby had ever acted aggressively towards humans. Therefore, the likelihood that she would injure humans was low so there was no duty for the property owner or manager to remove her from the complex. The appellate court noted that requiring dogs to be removed in situations with a low likelihood of injury places a heavy burden on landlords. Therefore, Regency and Michelson did not have a duty to protect against the type of harm that occurred to Mr. Brown’s guest, regardless of whether they had the ability to do so by enforcing the community rules.

Conclusion

Landlords and property managers are not responsible for injuries inflicted by their tenants’ dogs in cases where a dog has no history of vicious behavior toward humans. Because it is unreasonable to require that landlords remove dogs who have a history of engaging with other dogs—which is very common—property owners and managers have no duty to protect tenants and their guests in this type of situation.

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