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Is an Employer-Landlord Responsible for Injuries Sustained on the Leased Premises When a Tenant’s Pet Attacks?

When people are attacked by aggressive dogs and suffer serious injuries as a result, it is common for the injured party to file a lawsuit against the dog owner. In situations where the attack occurs at a rental property, the landlord is sometimes named as a defendant in the suit. In the case of Howle v. Aqua Illinois, the Illinois Appellate Court discusses whether landlords can be held responsible for injuries caused by their tenants’ pets.

The Facts

In August 2006, Mr. Chitwood was hired as the distribution superintendent at the Aqua Illinois, Inc. water-treatment plant. He entered into a month-to-month lease with the company when he rented a home located on its premises; the home was situated within the barbed-wire fencing that surrounded the entire plant, and it was only accessible via a single secure entrance that was monitored 24/7. He lived at the residence with his wife and two dogs, Marley and Annie, whom he allowed to roam freely throughout the Aqua property.

Over the course of Mr. Chitwood’s tenancy, there were a number of incidents involving Marley. During the first of these incidents, the snarling dog approached an employee who felt threatened by the dog’s behavior; she subsequently reported the incident to Aqua’s vice president, Mr. Bruns, along with the plant’s production manager. Both of these supervisors spoke with Mr. Chitwood and told him to supervise his dogs when they were outside of his home. Even so, there were at least three more incidents involving Marley. In one incident, the dog entered the plant through an open door and growled at an employee. Mr. Chitwood was not present for that encounter, but he was present during a later encounter when the dog growled and ran toward an employee who was on a catwalk suspended 30 feet in the air. The final incident with Marley occurred on August 12, 2008, when the dog approached the plant’s janitor in a “threatening” way and backed off only when the janitor threw a can at the animal.

On the following day, August 13, Mr. Bruns wrote a memorandum detailing a disciplinary meeting with Mr. Chitwood. During the meeting, Mr. Bruns had notified Mr. Chitwood that Aqua would take action if there were any further incidents involving the dogs: either the pets would be removed or Mr. Chitwood would have to relocate to a new home off the premises. Mr. Bruns also noted that Aqua could terminate Mr. Chitwood’s employment in addition to his tenancy if he did not comply. Mr. Chitwood indicated that he understood.

On December 27, 2008, several months after Mr. Chitwood’s son, Justin, had moved into the home along with his pit bull, Sage, Mr. Chitwood hosted a family gathering at his home. Among the attendees were Mr. Chitwood’s nephew, Scott, and Scott’s girlfriend, Ms. Howle. During that gathering, the pit bull became aggressive and growled at guests while they ate. Following this behavior, Justin noted that Sage had previously bitten a friend’s hand.

Later that night, when Scott and Ms. Howle were about to leave the gathering, Ms. Howle shook Mr. Chitwood’s hand. Immediately following this interaction, she tapped Sage’s head. The dog then jumped up and attacked her, causing irreparable damage to her left ear. The dog also tore her cheek, resulting in ten stitches and a visible scar. Justin again noted that Sage had previously bitten a friend, though he did not provide any details about that particular incident.

In February 2009, Mr. Bruns notified Mr. Chitwood in writing that he would have to vacate his home prior to May 1 of that same year.

Ms. Howle filed a lawsuit against Aqua, claiming the plant was liable for her injuries under the Animal Control Act. She also claimed Aqua had acted negligently by failing to uphold its duty to protect her from a vicious dog on its property. More specifically, Ms. Howle contended that Aqua was legally responsible because it provided care, custody, and control over the dog and could therefore be considered the dog’s owner.

Pet Owner 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 violation of the Illinois Animal Control Act, and the second is a common law violation alleging that the defendant has been negligent.

Under the Illinois Animal Control Act, defendants are responsible for dog attack injuries in situations when all of the following conditions are met: the defendant is the animal’s owner, 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. To demonstrate that an owner is responsible for injuries under the Animal Control Act, plaintiffs must prove that all of these requirements were met during the incident in question.

Furthermore, the Animal Control Act 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.”

To prove a pet owner’s negligence in a dog bite case, plaintiffs must prove the defendant had a duty to protect the injured party, the defendant failed to fulfill that duty, and this failure was a direct cause of the injury. In the absence of duty, a plaintiff’s negligence claim cannot succeed. Additionally, the plaintiff must show that the defendant is aware of the dog’s prior history of viciousness toward humans in order for the claim to be successful.

The Decision

In response to Ms. Howle’s lawsuit, Aqua filed a motion to dismiss both the Animal Control Act claim and the negligence claim, saying the company “never owned or controlled any of the dogs owned by Chitwood or [Justin].” Furthermore, Aqua claimed that while it was aware of Mr. Chitwood’s dogs, it was not aware of any previous biting incidents. The trial court dismissed the Animal Control Act count, saying Aqua did not own the dog as defined by the statute. However, the trial court did not dismiss the negligence count. Aqua then filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that all evidence produced, even if interpreted in the way most favorable to Ms. Howle, was insufficient for a jury to find in her favor. The trial court agreed and granted the summary judgment.

Ms. Howle appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, arguing that the trial court was wrong to dismiss the Animal Control Act claim because Aqua meets the criteria to be held responsible as Sage’s owner. Furthermore, she claimed the trial court was wrong to grant summary judgment regarding the negligence claim because Aqua had a duty to protect her from Sage and because a jury should decide whether Aqua knew of the dogs’ dangerous temperaments. 

Ms. Howle claimed that Aqua can be considered Sage’s owner based on the conditions set forth in the Animal Control Act since Aqua provided the dog shelter by renting a home on its property to Mr. Chitwood, the home was accessible only through the company’s secure monitored entrance, Aqua employees were responsible for safety policies and procedures on plant property, Aqua’s vice president acknowledged the company’s authority over Mr. Chitwood by mandating that he take steps to remove his dogs and/or restrict their freedom, Aqua was aware of the dogs’ dangerous nature, and Mr. Chitwood was informed in August 2008 that he would either have to remove the dogs or move out of the plant-owned home if there was another incident with his pets.

The appellate court rejected Ms. Howle’s argument and upheld the dismissal. (However, the court did note that a motion for summary judgment would have been more appropriate than a motion to dismiss.) In explaining its decision, the appellate court referred to a Supreme Court decision requiring owners to have “some measure of care, custody, [and] control” to qualify as “harboring or keeping” a dog. The appellate court noted that simply permitting a dog to be present at a rented property is not enough to qualify a landlord as a dog’s owner. Because Aqua did not have control over the dogs and did not impose specific requirements to regulate Mr. Chitwood’s interactions with them—including lack of specific requirements for preventing the dogs from causing disturbances at the plant—the company cannot be considered the dogs’ owner. The court also noted that Aqua had no property interest in the dogs, did not house or feed the dogs, and did not gain any benefit by allowing Mr. Chitwood to keep the dogs at his residence. Therefore, the court concluded that Aqua did not meet the Act’s requirements of exercising care, custody, or control over the dogs.

Ms. Howle also claimed that Aqua had a duty to protect her from dangerous dogs that were kept on its premises. She argued that because Mr. Chitwood was required to vacate his residence following the attack, Aqua retained control of both him and his dogs. Furthermore, she contended that Aqua was aware of the dogs’ aggressive temperament.

The appellate court disagreed, citing language from an earlier ruling: “It is well settled in Illinois that a landlord is not responsible for injuries caused by a defective or dangerous condition on premises leased to a tenant and under the tenant’s control.” Furthermore, “We hold that a landlord owes no duty to a tenant’s invitee to prevent injuries proximately caused by an animal kept by the tenant on the leased premises if the landlord does not retain control over the area where the injury occurred. A landlord does not retain such control where he has the right to coerce the removal of the animal by threatening to terminate the tenancy.”

In other words, landlords give up control of their property when they lease it to a tenant. Therefore, the appellate court said that Aqua had no duty to protect Ms. Howle from injuries sustained at Mr. Chitwood’s residence. Because Aqua had no duty to protect, it could not have acted negligently.

Similarly, the court rejected the claim that knowledge of the dog’s aggressiveness contributed to Aqua’s negligence; since there was no duty to protect Ms. Howle, the appellate court said it was irrelevant whether Aqua knew of Sage’s temperament.

Conclusion

Landlords do not have a duty to protect visitors from their tenants’ pets simply by virtue of allowing animals to inhabit the property. Therefore, they cannot be considered negligent in cases where tenants’ pets cause serious injuries unless there are other factors at play. Furthermore, in accordance with the court’s interpretation of “owner” as it applies to the Animal Control Act, landlords are not liable for injuries caused by their tenants’ pets unless they provide care for the animal, have possession of the animal, and/or have control of the animal.

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