Dog bite victims injured on leased premises are no longer out of luck if the dog owner fails to carry renters insurance covering dog bite attacks. In the recently decided case of Benningfield v. Zinsmeister, the Kentucky Supreme Court found that a landlord might be liable for damages if a tenant’s dog attacks. The question before the Court was whether a landlord who permits a tenant to keep a dog on leased premises can be deemed an “owner” of the tenant’s dog and, therefore, liable for damages if that dog causes injury to a third party.
Kentucky dog bite law (KRS Chapter 258) imposes strict liability on dog owners when their dogs attack a person, livestock or personal property. (See: KRS 258.235(4)) That means there is no “one bite” rule allowing the animal to attack one time before its owner is then liable for damages. KRS 258.990 provides that “the owner of any dog…which bites a human being shall be liable to pay all damages for personal injuries resulting from the bite…” The all-important question then centers around who is deemed an “owner” for liability purposes.
KRS 258.095(5) defines “owner” as “every person having a right of property in the dog and every person who keeps or harbors the dog, or has it in his care, or permits it to remain on or about premises owned or occupied by him.” It is this last phrase in the definition of “owner” upon which the Kentucky Supreme Court found a landlord might be held responsible for damages caused by a tenant’s dog.
“On or about the premises” determines the extent of the landlord’s liability based on the geographical location of the attack. The Benningfield Court explained that landlords might be liable for attacks that occur immediately adjacent to the property or “so close to it as to be within immediate physical reach.” Landlords are not liable for injuries occurring outside the leased premises.
Based on the Court’s reasoning, a landlord may be deemed an “owner” if the landlord knows about the dog on the leased premises and permits the dog to be there. After being deemed an “owner”, a landlord might be liable for damages if the dog attacks within immediate physical reach of the leased premises.
Becker Law Office anticipates the Benningfield ruling will have a ripple effect on both landlords and tenants. Landlords will change their rental policies regarding dog owners. Tenants will either no longer be permitted to keep dogs on leased premises, or landlords will require tenants to purchase and carry liability insurance to cover dog bite attacks. Landlords should also check to ensure their liability insurance covers tenant’s dog attacks since the landlord may ultimately be held responsible for paying damages caused by the attack.
The practical effect of this ruling is that dog bite victims may still be compensated if attacked by a tenant’s dog on leased property where the tenant has no insurance. The Benningfield Court explained, “including responsible landlords under the umbrella of dog owners…increases the likelihood that an innocent dog-attack victim can be made whole.”