People are emotionally attached to their pets, so nonacademic discussions about pet restrictions can be fraught with emotion and controversy. After all, you're talking about four-legged members of families. Four out of every 10 American households now own a dog, according to Humane Society statistics.
This means there's no avoiding the issue of dangerous dogs for homeowner and condo association boards. Even if you have a blanket "no pet" policy, or allow only dogs below a certain size, you still have to maintain consistent enforcement - failing to do so could potentially expose your association to liability.
Understanding the Potential Liability Dogs Pose
First, understand that people who call for bans of pit bulls and other specific dog breeds don't just hate dogs. There are real world legal and financial reasons for considering restrictions. Claims arising from dog bites make up nearly a third of liability claims against homeowners insurance.
Insurance companies track dog bite injuries, the breeds of the offending dogs, and how much dog bite claims cost policyholders. For this reason, property insurance carriers routinely exclude certain breeds of dogs from coverage arising from dog bites. Put simply, if the resident disregards the breed restrictions on their homeowners or renters insurance policy, the insurance company won't pay the claim.
This potentially puts the ball in your court as an association board member. Landlords have been held responsible for dog bites caused by their tenants' dogs if they were found negligent, and the same legal reasoning can be applied to homeowner or condo associations.
Here's an example: Suppose you have a resident who gets bitten by a pit bull. There are serious injuries, and lots of expensive medical bills arise from treating the bite. But the resident's homeowners insurance policy denies the claim, citing a dog breed restriction in the policy. In that case, the association could find itself the target of a lawsuit, with attorneys arguing that the association knew, or should have known, about the possibly dangerous dog breed.
"A homeowner association may be liable for permitting dangerous dogs to remain on the common areas and private streets owned and controlled by the association," cautions Kenneth Phillips, a Los Angeles area attorney who specializes in dog bite injury cases. "The Board of Directors of these associations have a fiduciary duty to manage and operate the common areas, including making them safe and warning of any known dangerous conditions."
Dog Bite Statistics - Frequency and Cost
As the below statistics show, dog bites are surprisingly common occurrences with potentially huge economic and human consequences.
885,000 Americans receive dog bites each year severe enough to require medical attention.
27,000 people received reconstructive surgery in 2013 due to dog bites.
24 percent of fatal dog attacks involved unrestrained dogs off their owners' properties. 58 percent involve unrestrained dogs on the owners' properties.
Dog bite claims cost insurance carriers almost half a billion dollars per year.
The average cost in the U.S. per dog bite-related insurance claim was $27,862, as of 2013.
What Dog Breeds Are Considered Dangerous?
According to data from the Center for Disease Control, just two dog breeds - pit bulls and Rottweilers - were responsible for nearly two thirds of dog-related fatalities during the period studied, 1979 through 1988. Pit bulls accounted for 66 known deaths, and Rottweilers accounted for 39.
Other purebreds responsible for fatal attacks during that period, according to the CDC, include German shepherds, huskies, Great Danes and boxers. Even the friendly Labrador accounted for one death, as did the Yorkshire terrier.
According to research from Dogbites.org, a dog bite victim advocacy organization that supports breed restrictions, molosser breeds, including pit bulls, Rottweilers, mastiffs, Sharpeis and boxers, can account for the following:
81 percent of maiming attacks
71 percent of attacks on children
87 percent of attacks on adults
72 percent of fatal attacks
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Worst-Case Dangerous Dog Scenarios
Two pit bulls were responsible for the biggest dog bite-related judgment in history. The two dogs mauled a third-grader, resulting in the amputation of one of her arms and the permanent disfigurement of the other. In addition to over $100,000 in medical bills, the jury awarded the victim $72 million in compensatory and punitive damages. A judge reduced the punitive damage award to $250,000, but compensatory damages remained at $36 million.
Tragically, the child will not collect anywhere near the amount of money necessary to compensate her for her life-changing injuries as the dogs' owner was uninsured.
If this tragedy happened on your association's property, would you be prepared? Would your association's resources and your existing insurance coverages be sufficient to adequately compensate and protect your members, tenants and guests from the consequences of severe dog bites, if your board were found to be at fault?
Look to Local Laws
Some cities ban certain breeds of dogs within their city limits. If your city is among them, and you ignore illegal dog breeds in your association, your exposure to liability at the association level could be heightened.
Restrictions and Mixed-Breed Dogs
One grey area that regularly presents itself is the issue of mixed breeds. If your organization chooses to restrict certain species of dogs, sooner or later someone will raise the "it's not a pure pit bull" defense. Is that an out? If your organization allows Labradors but bans Rottweilers, do you have to allow a mix of the two to stay? Labs are not known as a dangerous breed, but the dog will still do some damage as an adult if it decides to chomp down on somebody.
These arguments may seem a little absurd, but that's the reality of dog breed restrictions. If you don't address the issue of mixed breeds in writing before the issue comes up, these arguments are exactly the rabbit hole your association's lawyers will be find themselves going down - and charging you by the hour to do so. Some associations have spent six figures in legal fees trying to evict residents over banned pets - and lost. Don't let your association be another example.
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