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Are Landlords Responsible for Protecting Guests from Injury When Tenants Own a Dangerous Dog?

In Illinois and throughout the United States, it is common for renters to have pets live with them at a rental property. It is also common for renters to lack an insurance policy that covers injuries their pets inflict. In the case of Klitzka vs. Hellios, the Illinois Appellate Court addresses whether landlords can be held financially responsible for injuries caused to their tenants’ guests in this type of situation.

The Facts

On April 17, 2000, two-and-a-half-year-old Alexus Kiltzka and her mother visited their next-door neighbor’s house for a play date. The home was owned by Michael and Trudy Hellios, who rented it to their son Mark and his wife Amanda on a month-to-month basis and with no written lease in place. About ten minutes into the playdate, Mark and Amanda’s dog, Haley, bit Alexus. The dog had not been provoked in any way, nor did she give any warning she was agitated or about to bite. The attack caused severe facial injuries that required 15 to 20 stitches; additionally, the child was left with permanent scarring and hypersensitivity. Unfortunately, Mark and Amanda did not have an insurance policy that covered Alexus’s injuries.

Mark and Amanda had purchased Haley, an Akita, when she was a puppy two years earlier.  They did not purse obedience training, but they did read a book to learn about the breed. The book, which landlords Michael and Trudy also read in part, stated that Akitas are excellent guard dogs and may display aggression toward unfamiliar people and animals. While Haley had shown aggression toward other dogs on several prior occasions, she had no record of aggression toward people. However, Alexus’s parents claimed that Haley frequently growled at people passing by Mark and Amanda’s home. Furthermore, Amanda had told Alexus’s mother that Haley was banned from Hellios Construction, owned by Mark’s father, because she had fought with another dog on the premises.

Seeking compensation for her daughter’s injuries, Alexus’s mother filed a lawsuit against the landlords, Michael and Trudy, claiming they had acted negligently (carelessly) because they allowed the tenants to have a dangerous dog in their home, they failed to determine the dog couldn’t be controlled, and they did not inform Alexus or her parents that the dog was dangerous. The lawsuit contended that this negligence caused Alexus’s injuries.

Negligence & Landlord Liability for Injuries

To prove negligence, plaintiffs must demonstrate that the defendant has a duty to protect them from injury. (If the defendant has no duty, it is impossible for the plaintiff to win a lawsuit.) Furthermore, the plaintiff must show the defendant failed to uphold his or her duty and must prove the injury was caused as a direct result of this failure.

In general, Illinois landlords have no duty to protect against injuries caused by a dangerous or defective condition at a rental property that is under the tenant’s control, such as a dog attack. However, there are some exceptions to this rule: when the landlord knows (or should know) of a latent defect that exists at the time of leasing, when the landlord fraudulently conceals a dangerous condition, when the defect causing harm amounts to a nuisance, when the landlord promises to repair a condition at the time of leasing, and when the landlord violates a law that is intended to protect the tenant.

In order to win a lawsuit, plaintiffs must prove either that the landlord was in control of the property at the time of the injury or that one of the exceptions applies.

The Decision

In response to the lawsuit against them, Michael and Trudy Hellios made a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the evidence was insufficient for a jury to find in Alexus’s favor, even if interpreted in the light most advantageous to her. More specifically, they argued that Mark and Amanda were in control of the rental property; therefore, as landlords, had no duty to protect Alexus. The motion was granted. 

Alexus appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, arguing that summary judgment was inappropriate because a jury should have the opportunity to decide whether the landlords knew Haley was dangerous. She also argued the trial court had erred in saying the landlords had no duty to protect her. She supported this assertion by citing a prior Illinois case, Mangan v. F.C. Pilgrim & Co., in which a landlord was held responsible when a tenant was injured upon being startled by a mouse inside her apartment.

The appellate court disagreed with Alexus’s rationale, noting that in Mangan, the mouse was present due to a vermin infestation in an area of the building the landlord controlled. Therefore, the case did not demonstrate that landlords are liable for injuries in situations where they have no control of the property. In other words, because Michael and Trudy did not control their son’s home, they had no duty to protect his guests from a dog attack that occurred on the property. For this reason, the court stated that it is irrelevant whether the landlords knew (or should have known) their tenants’ dog presented a threat.

Alexus further argued that the landlords retained control of the property because they had a right to terminate their son’s unwritten month-to-month lease at any time. The rationale for this line of reasoning was built upon decisions from cases outside of Illinois, including one in which a landlord was held responsible for injuries caused by a pit bull when the landlord failed to uphold the lease’s “no pets” clause. Noting that cases from outside jurisdictions have no bearing on the interpretation of Illinois law (with the exception of cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court), the court said the pit bull case wouldn’t apply even if it could be considered since Mark and Amanda had no written lease to enforce.

The appellate court also noted its unwillingness to set a precedent allowing landlords to be held responsible for their tenants’ dangerous pets in situations where landlords clearly lack control of the premises. The court felt it was important to place liability “where it belongs” rather than encouraging plaintiffs to “search for a defendant whose affluence is more apparent than his culpability.” (It seemed that Alexus’s mother targeted the landlords due to the tenants’ lack of insurance.)

Finally, even though the issue had no bearing on the outcome, the appellate court also addressed the question of whether the landlords were aware of the dog’s temperament. The court concluded there was insufficient evidence to suggest this was the case. The court referred to Alexus’s statement that Mark and Amanda allowed their children to play with the dog, had no knowledge of their dog acting aggressively toward children, and had never told Mark’s parents they believed the dog to be aggressive toward children. (The court determined that reading a book about the Akita breed is irrelevant because it doesn’t prove the landlords had knowledge of Haley’s specific temperament.) Furthermore, a dog is presumed to be harmless in Illinois unless there is proof to the contrary; in this case, there was none. In other words, there was no reason to believe the landlords had knowledge of the dog’s vicious nature.

For all of these reasons, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld the trial court’s decision.

Conclusion

In situations where tenants control their rental property, landlords cannot be held liable for injuries caused by their tenants’ pets. Even when landlords know their tenants have dangerous pets, they are not legally responsible for the injuries those pets cause (except under the exceptions stated above). Instead, tenants are liable when their dogs cause harm.

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