If you’re the owner of a rental property in the Lone Star State, you may have spent quite a bit of time working through the language of your lease agreement with an attorney and discussing various liability options with your insurance agent before putting your property into rental service. Your primary concerns may have been about issues like security deposits or the ability to periodically inspect your property for tenant-related damage. However, renting a home to tenants with a dog—particularly a known aggressive breed—can open you up to liability you may not have planned for or expected. Read on to learn more about how the “one bite rule” is applied in Texas courts and what property owners should know when it comes to insulating themselves from a personal injury judgment.
Under Texas law, a dog bite victim is able to recover a monetary judgment from the dog’s owner if two conditions are fulfilled:
1) the dog previously bit (or acted as though it might bite) one other person
2) the owner was aware that the dog had previously acted in this way
Unless both conditions are fulfilled, the injured plaintiff cannot recover under the one bite rule. This operates to prohibit recovery for situations in which a dog has never previously shown a disposition toward violence or (if the dog did previously bite someone) the owner was unaware of this incident.
However, there is still some recourse for Texas citizens who have suffered dog bite injuries under the state’s common law dealing with negligence. If an injured party can argue that the dog’s owner was negligent or reckless in its handling (for example, permitting it in the yard without a leash or encouraging rough play with other animals), the injured party may be able to prevail in a personal injury lawsuit.
Unfortunately, as a property owner, you may find yourself in the mix if the incident took place on (or adjacent to) your rental home. And because injured plaintiffs and their insurance companies can sometimes seek the deepest pockets from which to recover, landlords are often more attractive defendants than renters (who may be perceived as less affluent than homeowners). For these reasons, taking steps to limit your liability and protect yourself financially is key if your tenants own a dog.
What can you do to minimize your risk of liability on behalf of a tenant’s dog?
The easiest method to avoid dog-related liability is to simply include a provision in your lease agreement that prohibits pets. Not only can this give you an easy way to evict if your tenant does acquire a dog over the course of his or her tenancy, but it will also prevent much of the wear and tear associated with pets.
However, if your current lease agreement doesn’t specify whether pets are permitted (or expressly allows pets), you may want to toy with the idea of adding a steep non-refundable pet deposit or additional monthly rent imposed for each pet living in the house. Doing this can provide you with some additional income to offset the extra liability insurance and home maintenance costs you may incur, and renters who are reluctant to pay any extra fees may either decide to relocate themselves or rehome their pets.
You may also want to consider an umbrella insurance policy that can protect your personal assets from attachment or garnishment in the event you are named as a defendant in a dog bite-related lawsuit. If you’d rather pass the cost on to your tenant, require them to increase their renters’ insurance coverage to provide for the greater liability risks associated with owning a dog.
For more information on how you should handle tenants with dogs and the liability it brings, contact us at the AMS Law Group, and a personal injury attorney can further educate you about the “one bite” laws in Texas.