Liability for Bites by Dogs Upon Adjacent Property

The states differ as to whether a landlord can be held liable for a dog bite that happens (a) on adjacent property or (b) by a dog that is kept on adjacent property.

A general rule pertaining to the landlord-tenant relationship, applicable in states such as California, is that a landowner may discharge a duty of care either by remedying a hazard, protecting people from the hazard, or warning them of the hazard: “A possessor of land who knows of the hazard would have a duty to erect a barrier or warn persons entering the land of the danger, whether or not the possessor of the land has the authority to eliminate the hazard.” Alcaraz v. Vece (1997) 14 Cal.4th 1148 (where landlord did not create the hazard).

The landlord-tenant relationship is “protective by nature, requiring the [landlord] to guard his charge against harm from others.” William Prosser and Page Keeton, “The Law of Torts,” 383 (5th Ed. 1984). Landlords’ “liability for failure to warn is not founded upon their control over the common areas but upon their position of superior knowledge.” Wylie v. Gresch (1987) 191 Cal.App.3d 412.

An interesting issue arises when a vicious dog is known to be kept on adjacent property (not the landlord’s property, but adjacent to it). The cases are conflicting. For example, Florida law does not generally make the landlord liable for an attack by a tenant’s dog that happens on adjacent property having no connection to the landlord’s property, but does hold a landlord liable for such an attack if the adjacent property is “part of the total package” that was rented to the tenant, or is closely related to the landlord’s property, and the victim is one of the landlord’s tenants. See the discussion in Ramirez v. M.L. Management Co., Inc., 920 So.2d 36 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005).

In an important case involving not vicious dogs but hazards in the ocean, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the government and its management company had a duty to warn about such hazards even though they did not cause them. Pacheco v. United States, 220 F.3d 1126 (9th Cir. 2000). The rationale of the decision is that where a landowner has a certain type of relationship with one who comes on his or its land, and also has actual knowledge of a substantial danger existing on adjacent property (of which the visitor is unaware), then there is a duty to warn the visitor of the danger.