Landlord loses pitbull injury suit on appeal in Maryland

Solesky v. Tracey seemingly expanded a landowner's potential liability for the damages caused by tenant's pets. That case concerned a landlord's liability for the mauling of a boy by a tenant's pit bull. In 2006, the landlord rented her property to two tenants. The lease included a provision allowing the couple to keep an "American Bulldog Terrier" on the property. The lease further stated that "Tenant shall not keep the pet on the premises if the pet is or becomes vicious or threatening, bites, or attacks any person or other pet, or otherwise is or becomes a nuisance." That lease expired on December 31, 2006.

The landlord and her daughter visited the property the following January to inspect the property and review the proposed new lease. While there, they observed two pit bulls the couple was keeping on the property and the roofless cage in the backyard where the dogs were kept. The new lease was signed that day. It omitted the "vicious or threatening" language and contained two new provisions:

11. Pets: The Lessee is allowed to keep pets that are agreed upon by Lessee and Lessor: 2 pit bull dogs.

13. The Lessee will be civically [sic] and financially responsible for their pets. Should the pet(s) harm anyone, it is the Lessee's financial responsibility to pay for the damage. The Lessor is in NO WAY responsible.

Three months later, one of the dogs escaped its pen and attacked a small boy causing severe injuries. The boy's parents brought suit against the dog's owners and the landlord. At the conclusion of the plaintiffs' case, the landlord moved for judgment. The Court granted the motion, explaining that 1) there was no evidence that the landlord knew the dogs were vicious and 2) there was no provision in the lease that gave the landlord control over any portion of the rental premises.

The Court of Special Appeals vacated the entry of judgment, noting that the evidence, when considered in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs, was sufficient to survive a motion for judgment. First, the court explained that the jury could infer that the landlord knew the dogs were vicious. While the court declined to rule that all pit bulls are vicious, the court pointed out that the landlord observed the dogs during her visit and a neighbor testified that anyone who observed the dogs would have seen their aggressive behavior. Thus, there was a reasonable inference that the landlord had seen the dogs' vicious behavior. Moreover, the jury could also infer knowledge of viciousness because the landlord changed the lease by omitting the prohibition against keeping "vicious or threatening" pets and emphasizing that the landlord was "in NO WAY responsible" for any damages.

Finally, the court ruled that the jury could infer that the landlord had control over the rental premises because "instead of simply trying to disclaim responsibility in the event the dogs attacked anyone, the landlord should have either refused to re-let the premises, or refused to allow the dogs to remain, or required [the tenants] to implement reasonable containment measures to ensure that their pit bulls would not escape the pen or the premises."
Categories: Maryland