Court holds landlords are liable for injuries caused by tenants' dogs Md. appellate judges rule in Prince George's case

August 07, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Landlords can be held responsible for injuries caused by their tenants' dogs when the dogs attack people in the common areas of a property, Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday.

The ruling, reversing a Court of Special Appeals opinion in favor of landlords, appears to significantly broaden the liability of landlords for hazards on their property, according to one Baltimore lawyer who represents commercial and residential landlords.

It may put an end to business owners using dogs as security at repair shops, junkyards and other such businesses, according to Aaron M. Levine, lawyer for the victims of the dog attacks in the court's decision.

"Now you can go against the landlord for his failure to kick the tenant out," Levine said. "Any landlord who knows that there is a pit bull that is attacking is going to be responsible."

The decision stems from a Prince George's County case in which Kimberly Shields, a customer of an auto body shop in a Capitol Heights strip mall, and M. Bernard Johnson, a neighboring shop owner, sued the owner of the mall after they were attacked by a pit bull in the parking lot.

The dog, Trouble, was kept at an auto body repair shop in the building.

The attacks occurred in 1993 and 1995, sending both victims to a hospital. The dog was euthanized after the second attack, according to a lawyer for one of the victims.

A Prince George's County Circuit Court judge dismissed the suit in November 1996, finding that the property owners, Hampton-Edgeworth Joint Venture, had "no duty to the invited public into the leased premises."

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the ruling in October 1997.

But the Court of Appeals, in a unanimous opinion, found that the case should have gone to a jury.

The property owners had control of the parking lot and could have kept Trouble off the property by refusing to renew his owner's month-to-month lease, according to the opinion.

It also found enough evidence that Arthur Wagman, one of the five partners, knew the dog was dangerous and that it was dangerous to hold him in a flimsy chicken-wire cage.

While the ruling deals with dog attacks on a commercial property, Baltimore lawyer Ira C. Cooke said it could have broader impact on residential landlords as well.

"Any case that further extends landlord responsibility is an important case because it's not just limited to dogs," said Cooke, who represents commercial and residential landlords. "What it means is that a landlord now has responsibility for the actions of his or her tenant if the landlord, one, knows about it and, two, doesn't take action."

The tenant, David Thomas, kept three pit bull terriers at his auto repair shop. Trouble stayed there day and night, usually inside a chicken-wire cage. But at night, and sometimes during business hours, he was allowed to run loose in the shop.

Trouble was a vicious dog who growled at strangers and familiar visitors, trying to get out of his cage as if to attack, according to witnesses in the Prince George's County proceedings.

Wagman, the property manager, testified that he told Thomas before the first attack not to keep the dog there because " 'it would be a threat to people on the premises and people would be frightened by it,' " according to court papers.

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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