Where a landlord had told a tenant to immediately remove a pit bull who had bitten someone, had no notice that the pit bull had returned, and had given the tenant 30-day notice of eviction after the first biting incident, the landlord did not breach any duty owed to the guest of the tenant who was subsequently bitten by the pit bull after the tenant allowed it to return to the property.
In Harrill v. PI Tennessee, LLC, No. M2021-00424-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 1222318 (Tenn. Ct. App. April 26, 2022), defendant landlord owned and operated a mobile home park, and Gina Branch leased one of the mobile homes. The lease agreement prohibited Branch from keeping a pit bull or other dog over thirty pounds at the property. From March 2015 to February 2016, Branch’s son lived with Branch and kept his pit bull in the home. In March 2016, defendant sent Branch a letter stating that the pit bull was not allowed and that if the pit bull returned to the property, she would be evicted without notice.
Almost two years later, in January 2018, Branch’s son and his girlfriend were visiting the property and brought the pit bull, and during the visit the pit bull bit the girlfriend. Defendant learned of this attack on January 10, 2018 and immediately ordered Branch to have the dog removed from the property. Defendant also served Branch with a 30-day eviction notice. After that time, defendant did not see the dog or receive any reports of the dog being at the property. On January 31, Branch allowed the dog to return and kept him inside. Plaintiff came to the property to help Branch pack and move, and while plaintiff was inside the home, the dog bit her.
Plaintiff thereafter filed this negligence suit against defendant, “claiming that her injuries were caused by [defendant’s] negligent failure to remove or restrain [the dog] after learning of the [previous] attack[.]” Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that plaintiff failed to show that defendant breached any duty owed to plaintiff, and the trial court agreed, granting summary judgment to defendant. On appeal, summary judgment was affirmed.
A plaintiff asserting a negligence claim must prove five essential elements, including the existence and breach of a duty, which were the elements at issue in this case. A duty of care is “the legal obligation owed by defendant to plaintiff to conform to a reasonable person standard of care for the protection against unreasonable risks of harm.” (internal citation omitted). In cases that involve landlords and domesticated animals, “landlords typically are not liable for injuries caused by animals owned or harbored by their tenants.” (internal citation omitted). A duty for the landlord to protect a third person from injury does arise if the landlord “becomes aware of the fact that his tenant is harboring an animal with vicious propensities, and if he had control of the premises or other capability to remove or confine the animal.” (internal citation omitted).
When considering this case, the Court looked at two different time frames. First, the Court considered whether defendant satisfied its duty of care to third persons on January 10, the day it learned of the first dog bite. There was no dispute that defendant had a duty on this day, as it learned that its tenant was “harboring an animal with vicious propensities.” The dispute centered on the “reasonableness of [defendant’s] actions after learning of [the dog’s] vicious propensities.” Plaintiff argued that defendant was required to invoke the no-notice eviction provision of the lease rather than give Branch thirty days to leave the property, but the Court of Appeals disagreed. Looking to a previous Court of Appeals case, the Court explained that “if a landlord knows a tenant is harboring a vicious animal and has the authority to remove the animal, he or she satisfies the duty of reasonable care by ordering the tenant to remove the vicious animal from the premises or by terminating the lease and initiating eviction procedures.” Here, the facts showed that after learning about the first dog bite, defendant immediately ordered Branch to remove the dog and issued the thirty day eviction notice. Further, plaintiff admitted that Brach did remove the dog from the premises at this time, and defendant testified that it received no further information indicating that the dog was back on the property. Based on these facts, the Court rejected plaintiff’s assertion that only a no-notice eviction would have satisfied defendant’s duty of care on January 10.
The Court next considered whether defendant had a duty on January 31, the day plaintiff was bitten. Plaintiff essentially argued that defendant “had constructive notice that [the dog] returned to the property and was inside Ms. Branch’s mobile home on January 31 because [defendant] knew that Ms. Branch had a history or not complying with the Lease’s prohibition against pit bulls.” The Court, however, found that defendant “took reasonable steps to remedy the dangerous condition” here:
[Defendant] acknowledges that Ms. Branch had a history of disregarding warnings about allowing [the dog] on the property, but [defendant] contends that, even if it had constructive notice of [the dog’s] return to the property, it did not breach a duty owed to [plaintiff] because it took reasonable steps to remedy the dangerous condition. We agree with [defendant]. Our Supreme has stated, ‘when a dangerous condition occurs regularly, the premises owner is on constructive notice of the condition’s existence[,]’ and that ‘places a duty on that owner to take reasonable steps to remedy this commonly occurring dangerous condition.’ The undisputed facts of this case show that [defendant] took reasonable steps to remedy the dangerous condition. On January 10, [defendant] ordered Ms. Branch to remove [the dog] from the property, and it is undisputed that [the son] then relocated [the dog] to the home of a friend. [Defendant’s representative] testified in her deposition that, between January 10 and January 31, [defendant] monitored the mobile home park and did not see either [the son] or [the dog] return to Lot 31, nor did [defendant] receive any reports that [the dog] had been on the premises during that time period. [Defendant’s representative] admitted that she did not inspect the inside of Ms. Branch’s mobile home to see if [the dog] was there, but the Lease authorized [defendant] to inspect only the lot the mobile home sat on; it did not authorize [defendant] to inspect the interior of the home. Based on the foregoing, we conclude that [defendant] did not breach any duty owed to [plaintiff] on January 31.
(internal citation omitted). Summary judgment was accordingly affirmed.
This opinion further clarifies a landlord’s duty when it finds out a tenant is harboring a potentially vicious animal. Under the reasoning used here, the landlord was able to satisfy its duty by ordering the removal of the dog and issuing a thirty-day eviction notice, but it’s unclear how that might have changed had the landlord received any reports of the dog being on the property again after the first biting incident.
This opinion was released 2.5 months after oral arguments in this case.
Note: Chapter 29, Section 2 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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