Landlord Liability For Attacks By A Tenant's Dog

As noted on our Des Moines dog bite lawyer web page, dog attacks on on rental property by a tenant's dog may create liability for the owner/landlord of the property. The emphasis needs to be on "may" because these claims have proved difficult for plaintiffs to establish under Iowa law. It's much easier to establish liability against the owner of the dog than it is against a landlord.

The reason for this difficulty is that Iowa's dog bite statute, Iowa Code 321.28, only applies to dog "owners." A landlord wouldn't normally be considered a dog's owner. So dog attack claims against landlords are usually brought as premises liability claims. That means that Iowa Code 321.28's automatic liability provisions don't apply. Instead, the dog attack victim has the more difficult burden of proving negligence in order to recover against the landlord.

The Iowa Supreme Court first considered this issue in 1995 in Allison v. Page. A child was attacked by a tenant's dog on rental property. The question before the court was whether a landlord is liable for an injury inflicted by a tenant's dog when the landlord knew or had reason to know that the dog was dangerous.

The court noted that the general rule is that a landlord is not liable for injuries caused by the unsafe condition of the property arising after it is leased, provided there is no agreement to repair. But that general rule is subject to several exceptions. If the landlord retains control of the property, the landlord may be held liable. The landlord also has liability for unsafe conditions and defects in the common areas available to the public. And the landlord remains liable for any conditions existing before or at the time the property is leased.

The court concluded that these general rules foreclosed liability against the landlord in Allison. The landlords did not have any right to control their tenant's dog. The tenant's dog, to the extent it could even be categorized as a condition of the premises, came onto the land after the property was leased. Therefore, in the absence of any other applicable exception, the landlords had no liability for the injuries caused by their tenant's dog. In short, even though the landlord knew that the dog had bitten at least one other person during the time it was kept on the rental property, that didn't create liability against the landlord because the landlord had no obligation to do anything about the dog after it leased the property.

The Iowa Supreme Court revisited this topic four years later in the 1999 case of Jensen v. Mason. This was another case in which a tenant's dog bit someone, but with a few added wrinkles. The victim had moved into the tenant's house along with her family. They lived next door to the landlord, who was the tenant's mother and owned both houses. The two houses shared a backyard that was not fenced or divided in any way. The dog attack happened between the two houses in the single yard.

The Jensen court acknowledged its earlier holding in Allison that landlords are generally not liable for injuries arising from the unsafe condition of the premises arising after the landlord leases the property. But the court also repeated that the rule is subject to several exceptions. One exception includes circumstances in which the landlord retains control, or the landlord and tenant have joint control over the premises where the injury occurs. Generally, this exception applies where the injury is caused by the condition of common areas over which the landlord, alone or jointly with the tenant, has control. In these circumstances, the landlord is liable to one who has been so injured after coming onto the premises at the tenant's invitation if the landlord knew or should have known of the dangerous condition (like a vicious dog) and did nothing to make the property safe.

Unless there is evidence to the contrary, the law presumes that a landlord has retained control over premises used in common by different occupants of the landlord's property. These common areas may be inside or outside the building housing the tenant. The question in Jensen was whether a landlord had a duty to keep common areas reasonably safe by excluding a dog with known vicious propensities.

The court ruled that a landlord has the duty to keep the common areas reasonably safe by excluding a dog known to have vicious propensities.  That rule is subject to two conditions: (1) the injury must have occurred in common areas over which the landlord, alone or jointly with the tenant, has control; and (2) the landlord knew or should have known of the particular dog's vicious propensities. Using those principles, the court then decided that there was sufficient evidence of the landlord's negligence to require a trial in Jensen.

Please feel free to contact us if you need the assistance of a Des Moines personal injury lawyer.

Harley Erbe