Legal Liabilities of a Landlord
As a landlord, you know that managing the day-to-day operations of a residential property can be fraught with potential liabilities. Most landlords try to strike a balance between being overly restrictive of tenant activities (in an attempt to limit potentially dangerous behavior) and providing a welcoming environment that encourages long-term rentals. However, when it comes to dangerous or aggressive dogs, do you know your rights, responsibilities, and potential liabilities as a landlord?
Dog Bites in New Jersey: General Liability Laws
The law differs from state to state about who is responsible when a dog or other domesticated animal harms a person. In New Jersey, a dog owner is liable for:
- Any injuries caused by a dog that bites, scratches, or otherwise harms a person
- While such person is on or in a public place, or lawfully on or in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog,
- Regardless of the former viciousness of such dog (or lack thereof) or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness.
This means that even if a dog has never bitten or injured a person before, its owner is liable for all injuries caused by the dog's behavior. Some other states require that a dog owner have prior knowledge of the dog's dangerous tendencies to be held legally responsible. That is, the dog must have previously injured someone or demonstrated aggressive behavior, and the owner must have been aware of it before the owner would be legally liable.
This is not the case in New Jersey. Even if a dog has never before displayed aggressive tendencies or harmed another person, an owner is liable for the damage it causes to others. An owner who knows about their dog's violent or aggressive behavior or previous injuries caused by the animal may face additional charges or civil penalties if their animal causes harm to another person. Owners of vicious or potentially dangerous dogs must comply with multiple additional licensing restrictions, regulations, and registration requirements under New Jersey’s dangerous dog laws.
Landlord Liability for Animal Attacks and Dog Bites
In New Jersey, the owners of rental property and their tenants often share responsibility for maintenance and liability for accidents that happen on the property. Both landlords and tenants are responsible for safeguarding not only their invited guests (invitees) but also visitors who are permissibly on the premises (such as mail persons, delivery persons, inspectors, etc.). Both owners and tenants must warn or protect their guests and visitors from known hazards (for example, if they know that the hallway is snowy or slippery). The law also requires landlords to actively inspect the premises for hazards and take reasonable precautions to prevent foreseeable injuries. Failure to take appropriate, reasonable precautions can amount to negligence; in turn, this could lead to financial liability in a premises liability lawsuit.
In general, under New Jersey common law, a landlord is not automatically responsible for injuries caused by a tenant’s dog. However, in certain circumstances, a landlord's actions or knowledge may cause them to share liability for injuries caused by a tenant's dog. In rare cases, a landlord may share responsibility if they have some level of control over the dog (e.g., an onsite landlord agreeing to care for, watch, feed, or walk the dog).
More commonly, New Jersey courts have found liability where a landlord knew of a dog’s prior violent behavior or aggressive tendencies. A landlord can be liable if they permit a tenant to harbor a vicious animal and fail to take “curative measures." A landlord who has the legal power to remove the dog from the premises or otherwise minimize the chances of injuries occurring but chooses not to do so may share responsibility with its owner. The courts have assigned this duty the same standard as ordinary negligence: knowledge of a dangerous condition and failure to warn against it.
However, a landlord is neither required nor permitted to invade a tenant’s personal rented space without notice and justification. New Jersey courts have declined to extend a landlord’s responsibilities under premises liability law—to inspect and discover potential hazards—to evaluating animals owned by their tenants. In the 2009 case of Donaldson v. Lipinksi, the court held that even though landlords have a "duty to make reasonable inspections for the safety of the common areas," they have no legal duty to "ascertain whether a particular tenant's pet is abnormally vicious." Thus, unless a plaintiff can establish that a landlord knew of a dog’s viciousness, a court will likely find a landlord does not share liability for a victim’s damages.
What Should Landlords Do to Minimize Their Risk?
To guard against liability for these sorts of incidents, landlords can take a few different steps. First, establish clear dog policies, make sure they are written into your tenant agreements or leasing contracts, and enforce them consistently. It's up to landlords to determine whether they allow tenants to have animals on the property. However, federal law requires that landlords allow support animals, and New Jersey state law does not support “breed bans” (although some localities have their own policies). You might also consider including a clause providing that issues with animal noise, behavior, destruction of property, or injury may result in the landlord terminating the lease.
Second, consider requiring that tenants with animals carry sufficient rental insurance policies to cover potential injuries caused by their animals. Finally, ensure you have adequate insurance policies to cover injuries that your tenants’ animals may cause, including dog bites, and the costs of defending potential lawsuits (regardless of whether liability may ultimately attach).
An experienced dog bite attorney can help landlords take proactive steps to prevent being named in a lawsuit. If you have already been named as a defendant in a premises liability or negligence lawsuit related to a dog bite, you should consult an attorney experienced in handling animal attack claims immediately. An experienced attorney will be able to evaluate your case and prepare the best possible presentation of your defense.
 NJSA §4:19-16
 NJSA §§ 4:19-22—4:19-32
 Hyun Na Seo v. Yozgadlian, 320 N.J. Super. 68, 71 (App. Div. 1999) (citing
Cogsville v. Trenton, 159 N.J. Super. 71, 74 (App. Div. 1978)).
 Linebaugh v. Hyndman, 213 N.J. Super. 117, 120 (App. Div. 1986