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Unleashing Liability: Understanding Landlord Responsibility for Tenant Dog-Related Injuries

December 15, 2023

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Is a landlord liable for injuries caused by a tenant’s dog to another who is on the property of the landlord? Not always, says the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Here’s why.


West Penn, a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation owns land used for trap and target shooting. Goodenow v. McMahan, 297 A.3d 731 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2023), (reargument denied (June 26, 2023)). Defendant Ronald McMahan (“McMahan”) is the president and groundskeeper for West Penn and would work at the trap range during trapshooting events. Id. McMahan “always had a dog living with him, and the West Penn board members have always known that McMahan kept dogs on the property, although there was never any discussion about how he should handle them when other groups were utilizing the West Penn site.” Id. McMahan lived on the West Penn property and had a fenced area where he would keep his dog secure. Id. McMahan was unaware of “any incidents or reports to West Penn” that his dog “ever exhibited aggressive tendencies.” Id. McMahan’s dog was known to “interact with other West Penn club members’ dogs, adults, and young children.” Id.


The plaintiffs Teresa and Donald Goodenow (“Goodenows”) were attending a trapshooting event at West Penn. They decided to camp on the property and had brought their dog. The Goodenows claimed that McMahan’s dog had attempted to attack their own dog. Id. On July 11, 2015, after the trapshooting event was finished, the Goodenows were socializing outside of their camper with their dog and McMahan was also socializing in a group with his unleashed dog. Id. The Goodenows describe what happened thereafter as McMahan’s dog appearing suddenly at their campsite, grabbing their dog by the head. Id. As one man pulled McMahan’s dog by her collar, T. Goodenow “jumped from her own chair and grabbed [her dog], tripping and falling with the dog in her arms, allegedly resulting in injuries.” Id. Subsequently, D. Goodenow chased McMahan’s dog away. Id. The Goodenows, under the impression that the incident would be relayed to West Penn, did not fill out an accident report. Id.


Thereafter, the Goodenows filed claims “asserting negligence for West Penn’s violation of its duty to provide a safe environment and failing to require McMahan to either remove his dog from the property or to keep his dog restrained, as well as a loss of consortium claim….” Id. After discovery, West Penn filed a motion for summary judgment “on the basis that it was an out-of-possession landlord” and that the Goodenows “failed to produce evidence that it had actual notice of [McMahan’s dog’s] alleged vicious propensities.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). In response, the Goodenows argued that because McMahan was the president of West Penn, the knowledge cold be imputed to West Penn and that West Penn had its own independent duties and that the Goodenows were not “merely propounding a vicarious liability/respondate [sic] superior theory against West Penn. Id. The trial court granted West Penn’s motion for summary judgment because the Goodenows had presented no evidence of a dangerous propensity for McMahan’s dog. The Goodenows appealed and argue that there was a genuine issue of material fact whether McMahan’s dog had exhibited dangerous propensities. Id.


Ultimately, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the trial court’s decision. In doing so, the Superior Court stated that “[g]enerally, in negligence actions arising from the conduct of animals, the animal’s owner is the person responsible for injuries to others caused by his or her pet. … In order to establish a cause of action in negligence against a landlord for injuries caused by his tenant's4 dog, it must be proven that the landlord had “actual knowledge that his tenant harbors a dog with dangerous propensities.” Id (internal quotations and citation omitted). Likewise,the Superior Court relied upon the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s description of a dangerous or vicious propensity; “[a] dangerous propensity includes a propensity or tendency of an animal to do any act that might endanger the safety of the person and property of others in a given situation.” Id. (internal citation omitted).  In order to establish a cause of action in negligence against a landlord for injuries caused by his tenant’s dog, it must be proven that the landlord had actual knowledge that his tenant harbors a dog with dangerous propensities. Id. Internal quotations omitted). Simply stated, “prior to the ten to fifteen second July 8, 2015 interaction, there had never been any complaints to McMahan or West Penn about [McMahan’s dog’s] behavior, vicious or otherwise, and McMahan had not observed any violent behavior by [his dog] with any dog or person.” Id.

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