Risk of Landlord Liability Rises in Pit Bull Attack Cases

more+
less-

[authors: Shelah F. Lynn and Tina Shin]

Maryland landlords beware: the state’s highest court has made it much easier for victims of attacks by pit bulls or pit bull mixes to win judgments—not only against the dog’s owner, but also against any landlord that allows a pit bull or pit bull mix on leased premises.

To avoid liability, prohibitions on pit bulls or pit bull mixes in rental properties may become common. In light of the ruling, landlords and residential property managers should review their pet policies and consider changing them. 

Previously, the Maryland courts had ruled that a landlord would be liable for a dog attack only if the landlord had “knowledge of past vicious behavior by the animal.”

Now, in Tracey v. Solesky, the Court of Appeals of Maryland has concluded pit bulls and their crossbreeds are “inherently dangerous because of their aggressive and vicious natures, and their capability to inflict serious or fatal injuries.”

As a result, the court decided that victims of pit bull or crossbred pit bull attacks don’t have to prove any history of vicious behavior or knowledge of that viciousness.

The burden of proof on plaintiffs is now much lighter. To win the case, a plaintiff must only prove that the dog was a pit bull or crossbred pit bull and that the dog’s owner or the landlord knew, or had reason to know, that the dog was a pit bull or crossbred pit bull mix.

Legally, the Tracey decision significantly alters the landscape in pit bull attack cases by establishing a “strict liability” standard for both dog owners and property owners.

Under the new standard, the plaintiff must prove that the dog involved in an attack was a pit bull or a pit bull mix. Once that fact is established, the plaintiff needs to show that the defendant had control over the dog's presence and was aware the dog was at least part pit bull. The court specifically held that the standard applies to a landlord who has the right or opportunity to prohibit such dogs on leased premises. 

This ruling could expose residential landlords and rental management companies to liability merely by allowing pit bulls and pit bull mixes to be maintained on the leased premises. Prohibition of such dogs may be necessary to avoid liability for the harm that may be caused by a pit bull or mixed-breed pit bull. It is unclear whether this exposure can be extended to other dog breeds known to be aggressive. It appears equally possible that the strict liability rule can be extended to condominium and homeowners associations.

If you have questions regarding the ruling or how it affects your business, please contact Shelah F. Lynn at 301.664.6204 or lynns@ballardspahr.com, or Tina Shin at 301.664.6206 or shindc@ballardspahr.com.