Tenant's Dog Bites Man. Are Landlords Responsible?

Dog bites have become a more frequent occurrence in the world of increasingly pet-friendly apartments in Chicago.  The story unfolds in formulaic fashion: Child approaches dog (typically it’s a child), dog gets agitated, dog attacks child, child is rushed to hospital, parent sues everybody except the dog.

Before we get started with the analysis, let's just remind the pet owners of the world that a dog may not cross the owner's private property line unless it is "leashed and under the control of its owner or another responsible person." This law is embodied in both Section 7-12-030 and Section 10-36-020 of the Chicago Municipal Code. People who want to play "fetch" with their pets may do so only in specifically designated portions of public parks and beaches.

Who's Responsible When an Apartment Renter's Dog Bites Someone?

Now, the way the law sees it, there are three different groups of potentially responsible parties in a dog bite case. 

1) There are pet owners themselves,

2) There are people who own or occupy the property where the attack occurred, and

3) There are landlords who rent property to others. 

Landlords have reason to rest easy. In Illinois, it’s extremely rare for liability to be imposed on a landlord for the actions of a dog on property that the landlord has rented out to others. For landlords who live offsite, legal liability is a practical nullity.  Once the landlord relinquishes control to the tenant, it makes no difference whether the landlord personally viewed the dog as a menace or even if they predicted that someday someone would get hurt. For landlords who live onsite, as in multi-unit apartment buildings, the victim typically has to show that the attack occurred on the landlord’s portion of the property, that the landlord permitted the tenant’s dog access to his portion of the property, and that the landlord benefited in some way from the dog’s presence, usually by having the dog act as a security measure.

For tenants or owner-occupants, the legal landscape is not nearly so rosy. If someone else’s dog bites someone in a house or apartment they occupy, or somewhere in their yard, they can be held liable if the victim can prove that the owner knew the dog posed a danger to others.  It is not enough for the victim to show that a particular dog came from a dangerous breed because in Illinois all dogs, including rottweilers and pit bulls, are legally presumed to be “tame, docile, and harmless.”

For the pet owners themselves, it's not likely that they'll get off easy.  Even if all the facts line up as well as can be expected, pet owners should still anticipate a lengthy court battle and bank-busting attorneys’ fees if their dog attacks someone. 

The general information that Domu provides about Chicago landlord tenant law is not intended as legal advice. Domu endeavors to provide accurate information, but the law is subject to change, and Domu is not a law firm or provider of legal services. Questions about your particular leasing situation should be directed to a lawyer.