Landlord Liability for Dog Bite Injuries in North Carolina

dog width=In Stephens v. Covington, a North Carolina appellate court considered a dog bite case. The Hewetts leased a home from the defendant’s husband, Mr. Covington, who knew they owned a Rottweiler. The houses were close together, so the Hewetts and Mr. Covington contacted animal control about safety measures. At the direction of Animal Control, they posted signs and fenced and gated an area in the backyard.

Before they bought the property, the dog got so large that the Hewetts began to keep him only in the fenced area. The plaintiff was eight years old when he visited the Hewetts’ nine-year-old son. During the visit, the plaintiff followed the Hewetts’ son into the fenced area. While they were standing there, the dog bit the plaintiff in the leg. The Hewetts’ son hit the dog with a stick to get him to let go, but he couldn’t get him to let go and went to get his mom. The dog bit the plaintiff again in the shoulder and again wouldn’t let go.

The mother released the eight-year-old from the dog, and a neighbor grabbed the boy and pulled him over the fence away from the dog. The plaintiff suffered severe injuries. Animal Control investigated and got statements. The dog was kept quarantined at the animal shelter, and the Hewetts decided they would euthanize him.

The plaintiff sued both Mr. Covington and the Hewetts after reaching adulthood. The complaint was voluntarily dismissed because Mr. Covington died. The plaintiff refiled against the Hewetts and Mrs. Covington, alleging negligence. The trial court entered a judgment of half a million dollars against the Hewetts. Mrs. Covington filed for summary judgment, and the court granted the motion.

The plaintiff argued that there was a factual issue about whether Mrs. Covington had control over the Rottweiler. The appellate court disagreed. It explained that simply having leased property didn’t automatically establish landlord liability for a dog attack.

Instead, the landlord needed to have specific control over a dangerous animal. When a landlord has actual knowledge that a pet has a dangerous propensity and is present on leased property, and the landlord can control the property, he owes a duty to use ordinary care to protect third parties from the animal.

In the case at hand, the appellate court reasoned that there was no evidence either Mrs. or Mr. Covington knew or had reason to know of any dangerous propensity by the Rottweiler to attack. Mr. Covington had asked the Hewetts to contact Animal Control just to get advice on how to build a fence that would be in accordance with local ordinances, not because the dog had been aggressive. There were no prior incidents of aggression, and nobody complained about the dog before the plaintiff’s visit in 1996. Mrs. Covington had testified that the dog didn’t have a reputation for biting and that Mr. Covington wouldn’t have allowed the dog if it were dangerous.

The plaintiff argued that the appellate court had previously found that owners could be charged with knowing the general propensity of a Rottweiler. The appellate court explained that the plaintiff hadn’t presented evidence to show that Rottweilers as a breed were dangerous. The lower court’s order was affirmed.

If you were injured by a dog bite on someone else’s property, an experienced premises liability attorney at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 919-229-8359 or via our online form.

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