Landlord held responsible for dangerous animal kept by tenant in apartment Court restores award of $5 million in death of child in pit bull attack

October 08, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A landlord who does nothing about a tenant he knows is keeping a vicious animal can be held liable if that pet attacks someone, Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday.

The 4-3 ruling sets a precedent that broadens landlords' responsibilities and restores a more than $5 million Baltimore jury award to a woman whose baby was mauled to death by a pit bull in a friend's apartment four years ago.

While her lawyers hailed the decision as promoting safety, attorneys for building owners and managers said it puts apartment owners in a tenuous situation.

"When they know of a vicious dog, they need to take steps," said Andrew D. Freeman, an attorney for Shanita L. Matthews, whose 16-month-old son, Tevin Williams, was killed. "In this case, the mother had no idea that the dog was dangerous, but the landlord did I think it is an important decision."

The ruling follows one in August in which the Court of Appeals held a Prince George's County landlord liable for a tenant's pit bull's attack on a woman on a strip mall parking lot. The lot is a common area, but in yesterday's case, the attack occurred inside an apartment. Both rulings reverse the Court of Special Appeals and make no distinction where on a landlord's property an attack occurs.

Both decisions come amid legislative efforts around the state and nation to deal with aggressive dogs, especially pit bulls. Last year, Prince George's County banned pit bulls. The Annapolis City Council is considering regulations that would make pit bull ownership extremely difficult. Baltimore City and Baltimore County enacted tougher animal control laws this year.

Gregory L. VanGeison, lawyer for Amberwood Associates Limited Partnership Ltd., and Monocle Management Ltd., which own and manage the East Baltimore apartment complex where the attack took place, said he considered the ruling "very serious" for all landowners.

"If you are a landowner, given this opinion, and you have notice of some kind of dangerous or potentially dangerous safety issue, you better do something," he said.

Told by workers at the complex about the dog's barking, snapping and lunging at them and children, Amberwood and Monocle could have forced the tenant to get rid of the dog or move, Judge John C. Eldridge wrote for the majority. Joining him were Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, and Judges Irma S. Raker and Alan M. Wilner.

In a dissent, Judge Howard S. Chasanow, writing for judges Lawrence F. Rodowsky and Dale R. Cathell as well, agreed with arguments made by Amberwood. He wrote that while the landlord took no action, the mother allowed a young child to play around a dog that most people believe is dangerous. While a landlord might have safety responsibilities in the common area, he should not have the same obligation to protect a tenant's guests in the tenant's apartment from things under the tenant's control, he said.

On Feb. 9, 1997, Matthews, then 21 and of the 500 block of N. Luzerne Ave., was visiting Shelly Morton, who lived in an apartment in the 6000 block of Amberwood Road. Morton was keeping her incarcerated boyfriend's pit bull, Rampage. Rampage grabbed Matthews' baby by the neck and shook him. Neither Matthews nor Morton could free Tevin until Morton stabbed the dog. But the dog kept biting Tevin until Morton put the dog out of the apartment.

The child died an hour later at a hospital.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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