News: CJ Exclusives

Landlords Now Face Liability

Supreme Court extends responsibility for tenant dogs’ bites, changes NC case law

The N.C. Supreme Court ruled June 25 that landlords can he held liable under certain circumstances for bites inflicted by tenants’ dogs. The ruling represents a significant change in North Carolina case law.

Traditionally, North Carolina law has required that a bite victim must prove that a dog was vicious and that the owner knew of the dog’s dangerous nature before the victim could recover medical costs from the owner. A victim could also sue the owner based upon their the owner’s negligence. As a practical matter, recovering costs often proved difficult or impossible if the dog owner had a limited income, few assets, and wasn’t covered by homeowner’s or renter’s insurance.

Renters often fit this description. The new ruling creates an alternative means for bite victims to attempt to recover damages, allowing them to sue landlords, who likely have a greater ability to pay, under a theory of negligence.

Colonial Associates, L.L.C owned 13 acres of land in Wake County. The company leased out two houses on the property through Management Associates, a rental property management company, while trying to sell the entire estate. John Olson, who owned two Rottweiler dogs, rented one of the houses.

Ordinarily, the lease limited Olson to having only one pet, but Management Associates allowed Olson to keep the second dog as well. The rental contract also provided that the tenant must “remove any pet… within forty-eight hours of written notification from the landlord that the pet, in the landlord’s sole judgment, creates a nuisance or disturbance or is, in the landlord’s opinion, undesirable.”

Management Associates was also aware of two incidents in which Olson’s Rottweilers had attacked people and that he let the dogs run free on the property.

On April 18, 1996, Cecil Holcomb, a demolition contractor and licensed builder, went to the Olson house. A company interested in possibly buying the property from Colonial had hired Holcomb to estimate how much it would cost to tear down the rental homes. Holcomb rang the doorbell, but got no response. After taking notes while on the sidewalk, he attempted to walk to the back of the house. The two Rottweilers approached Holcomb. One of the dogs lunged, knocking him down. Holcomb suffered a distal radius fracture and back injuries.

Holcomb sued Olson and Colonial Associates. Holcomb argued that the landlord was negligent in allowing Olson to continue to keep the dogs on the property and that Olson should be held strictly liable for his dog’s actions.

At trial, a jury found for Holcomb and awarded $330,000 in damages. Colonial Associates appealed the verdict to the N.C. Court of Appeals, which threw out the award. However, because the appeals court split to 2- 1 in its ruling, the case also came before the N.C. Supreme Court.

The high court held that Holcomb could bring his lawsuit based upon a theory of negligence against Colonial Associates. “The fact that we recognize a strict liability cause of action against owners and keepers of vicious animals… does not preclude a party from alleging negligence (a different cause of action) against a party who may or may not be an owner or keeper of an animal, ” Justice Robert Orr wrote for the court.

The court also rejected Colonial’s argument that it did not have a duty of care to third parties because it did not have control over the dogs. Noting the lease language that allowed the landlord to require the tenant to remove a pet on 48 hours notice, the Supreme Court found that Colonial and Management Associates had sufficient control to remove the danger posed by Olson’s dogs.
In addition, the Supreme Court found that facts existed upon which the jury could conclude that Management Associates was Colonial’s agent, and that Holcomb was a lawful visitor and not a trespasser.

Justices Sarah Parker and George Wainwright dissented.

“Unlike a hole that can be filled or a broken step that can be repaired, an animal is not a condition of the premises,” Justice Parker wrote. “Animals are mobile and have moods and personalities. Thus, to hold that a landlord can be liable in negligence for an attack by a tenant’s animal on account of the landlord’s failure, pursuant to the terms of a lease, to order removal of an animal places an undue burden on the landlord. In my opinion the control is too remote to hold that the landlord breached its duty of care. Notwithstanding the majority’s overture to dogs, today is, I fear, a sad day for Fido and Rover.”

The case is Holcomb v. Colonial Assocs., LLC, (581A02).

Link to opinion here.