Don't hold landlords fully liable for bites from tenants' dogs

March 19, 2014 

Michael X. Wang is owner/principal broker for Realty Solutions in Lexington.

Kentucky's landlords should beware of liability for injuries caused by their tenant's dog bites. A 2012 Kentucky Supreme Court ruling (Benningfield v. Zinsmeister) changed the way the law is interpreted to make a landlord the owner of a tenant's dog for purposes of legal liability.

So, under current Kentucky law, landlords are strictly liable for dog bites by the tenant's dog that occur on or about the rental premises.

Strict liability is a legal term that means liability without fault. In other words, the landlord would be liable although he or she was not negligent, was acting in good faith, did not have knowledge of a dog's tendency to bite, and had no direct control over the dog or the rental property. If a tenant's dog bites someone on or about the rental property, the landlord is liable, period, case closed.

Putting strict liability on landlords for tenant's dog bites goes too far. Strict liability is a legal rule that usually is applied to certain businesses that deal in inherently dangerous areas like explosives. Strict liability applied to small businesses for things over which they have little control is wrong.

Because of this new interpretation of the law, landlords can expect to be sued in more cases of tenant's dog bites, and their assets will be exposed without regard to negligence or knowledge. Increases in landlord's exposure and claims will lead to higher costs for liability insurance.

Many landlords facing increasing exposure to lawsuits and higher insurance premiums will likely prohibit tenants from having dogs on rental premises. Landlords who lease property to dog care providers, such as veterinarians and dog groomers, would also have liability for dog bite injuries occurring on the rental property.

This is not meant to minimize the seriousness of dog bites which injure people. In order to both compensate victims and protect their assets, landlords, of course, can and should have liability insurance to protect against tenant's dog bites, as well as other types of liability.

But having insurance would not protect a landlord against the hassle and grief of being involved in a lawsuit. Nor would it protect landlords against all costs such as insurance deductibles or lost time.

Senate Bill 78 has been introduced by Sen. Chris Girdler in the 2014 session of the Kentucky legislature. The bill changes the definition of "owner" of a dog in the statute to get the landlord off the strict liability hook.

It would not take a landlord off the hook of all liability, however. If SB 78 passes, a landlord could still be found negligent and would have a duty to act with reasonable care by not allowing dogs know to vicious to be kept on rental property.

Supporting SB 78 helps landlords by doing away with strict liability these local small business owners face due to the Supreme Court's ruling.

It would also help dog owners who will likely face higher rents or limited rental housing options due to higher costs of liability coverage for landlords.

SB 78 has passed the Senate and is now pending before the House Judiciary Committee. Please contact your representatives and ask them to support SB 78. See how to contact them at lrc.ky.gov/Legislators.htm.

Michael X. Wang is owner/principal broker for Realty Solutions in Lexington.

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