In Illinois and throughout the United States, landlords frequently permit their tenants to own pets. Unfortunately, dogs and other animals can exhibit aggressive behaviors and cause injuries to neighbors, visitors, and passersby. In the case of Steinberg v. Petta, the Illinois Supreme Court considers the question of whether absentee property owners can be held liable for serious injuries caused by their tenants’ dogs.
On August 13, 1981, eleven-year-old James Steinberg was playing football with two friends in Blue Island, Illinois. When the ball entered an adjacent alley during the course of the game, the boys went to retrieve it. While in the alley, they noticed two other boys leaning over a four-foot chain link fence to pet a 65-pound dog that was either an Alaskan husky or a malamute. After a brief interaction between the two groups of boys, Mr. Steinberg and his friends stood at the fence in a location that was approximately ten feet away from the other boys. The dog ran toward them, jumped over the fence, and bit Mr. Steinberg on the nose. The injury was severe; the boy was taken to the hospital and, the following day, received plastic surgery.
The dog belonged to Ms. Welch and Mr. Groskoph, who lived on the first floor of a two-story house owned by Mr. Petta. The landlord did not live on the premises, and the property was managed by Mr. Tagler, who visited it each month to collect the rent. Mr. Tagler testified that he had allowed the tenants to build the fence several months prior to Mr. Steinberg’s injury. Additionally, Mr. Tagler had previously informed Ms. Welch and Mr. Groskoph of complaints from the upstairs tenant, who said the dog frequently bothered him when he was in the shared backyard. The property manager had also relayed complaints from neighbors who claimed the dog was noisy and messy. However, the apartment owner said he did not know the tenants owned a dog and was unaware that they had installed a fence until Mr. Steinberg was injured.
Mr. Steinberg filed a lawsuit against Mr. Petta, claiming the landlord had behaved negligently. Mr. Steinberg alleged that Mr. Petta retained control of the property’s common areas and failed to keep them safe when he allowed his tenants to have a vicious dog in the backyard. Mr. Steinberg also claimed the landlord was responsible for his injuries under the Animal Control Act because he harbored the dog.
Responsibility for Dog Attack Injuries
There are two theories under which an injured plaintiff may recover damages in cases involving dog attacks. The first is a common law violation alleging that the pet owner has been negligent and the second is a violation of the Illinois Animal Control Act.
To prove negligence in an Illinois dog bite case, the injured party must show that the owner is aware of the dog’s propensity for viciousness toward humans. Furthermore, owners have a duty to control dangerous animals in ordinary circumstances. If they fail to do so, owners are liable for the resulting injuries.
A defendant is only liable for dog bite injuries under the Illinois Animal Control Act when all of the following conditions are met: the defendant owns the animal, the animal is not provoked, the injured party behaves peaceably in the animal’s presence, and the injured party has a legal right to be present at the place where the injury occurs.
The Animal Control Act defines “owner” as “any person having a right of property in a dog or other animal, or who keeps or harbors a dog or other animal, or who has it in his care, or acts as its custodian, or who knowingly permits a dog or other domestic animal to remain on or about any premise occupied by him.”
At trial, the judge issued a directed verdict in favor of Mr. Petta regarding the negligence claim, citing inadequate evidence for a jury to find that the landlord knew the dog was dangerous. Mr. Petta also submitted a motion for directed verdict regarding the Animal Control Act claim. However, that motion was denied. The jury found in Mr. Steinberg’s favor and awarded damages of $7,508.20. The court subsequently denied Mr. Petta’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
Arguing that he was not the dog’s owner under the Animal Control Act, Mr. Petta appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court. The appellate court agreed with the trial court, saying there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the landlord “harbored” the dog. The court decided this way because it believed Mr. Petta controlled the yard, benefitted from the fence his tenants had installed, and—via the property manager conveying complaints about the dog—attempted to control the dog’s use of the yard.
Finally, Mr. Petta appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. In reviewing the case, the court determined that the only relevant question was whether Mr. Petta “harbored” his tenants’ pet. Because the Animal Control Act doesn’t define this term, the court relied on its common meaning: “to afford lodging to, to shelter, or to give a refuge to.” The court also referenced the Black’s Law definition of “keeper of dog,” which is as follows: “A harborer of a dog. Any person, other than the owner, harboring or having in his possession any dog. One who, either with or without owner’s permission, undertakes to manage, control, or care for it as dog owners in general are accustomed to do.”
The supreme court concluded that to harbor an animal, one must provide some level of care, custody, or control. Furthermore, courts in previous cases had required greater involvement than land ownership alone to designate landlords as animal keepers under the Animal Control Act. Although Mr. Petta did allow his tenants to keep a dog on the property, the supreme court concluded that the landlord did not harbor the dog because he resided elsewhere, did not have possession of the dog, and did not provide care for the dog. The court also noted that holding property owners liable under these circumstances would be contrary to the act’s intent. For these reasons, the supreme court overturned the trial and appellate courts’ decision to hold Mr. Petta liable for Mr. Steinberg’s injuries under the Animal Control Act.
Under the Animal Control Act, property owners cannot be held responsible for injuries caused by their tenants’ pets simply because they allow the tenants to have animals on the property. Landlords are only liable in situations where they provide care for the animal, have possession of the animal, and/or control the animal.