The “One-Bite” Rule: Homeowners Associations’ Liability for Animal Attacks

What do pet owners, homeowners associations and landlords all have in common? They may be held liable for injuries caused by an animal attack on any premises deemed to be under their control. Under common law, domestic animals such as dogs and cats are regarded as not inherently dangerous pets. Many states, however, have adopted the “one-bite” rule under which a person is liable for injuries caused by their animal, if they knew or had reason to know of the animal’s dangerous propensities. So under what circumstances would a homeowner’s association be liable for injuries sustained by a third party? Would the same standard apply to unit owners whose tenants have pets?

Generally, absent knowledge of on animal’s vicious behavior, the association or unit owner may not be liable for injuries sustained by a third party. But the Maryland Court of Appeals has taken matters a step further by establishing strict liability for owners of pit bulls and pit bull mixes. This makes matters very challenging for Associations in Maryland whose residents own or even babysit dogs of this breed. It is unclear if the District of Columbia will follow suit, but associations and unit owners alike should pay close attention to this issue and govern themselves accordingly.

In Tracey v. Solesky, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that dog owners and others who have a right to control the dog and who know or had reason to know that the dog was a pit bull or bit bull mix are strictly liable for injuries that result from an attack. The Court regarded pit bulls as “inherently dangerous” and therefore subject to a more stringent standard than that of the one-bite rule. This case shifts the law’s traditional focus from an animal’s propensities (the one-bite rule) to its particular breed. Moreover, strict liability can attach to anyone, including a homeowners association, who has the authority or opportunity to prohibit pit bulls on the premises.

In the District of Columbia, the one-bite rule is still in effect. If the owner had actual notice or had a reason to know of the animal’s dangerous propensities and had the right to exercise control of the property where a third-party was injured, the owner may be held liable. This rule is not limited to pet owners, but applies to anyone who exercises control over the property where the animal resides including unit owners and associations.

To guard against liability, homeowners associations should establish pet restrictions within their communities, but this should be done with the assistance of legal counsel to ensure that any proposed rules are consistent with local law. For more information on how to establish pet restrictions in your community, contact Attorney Yaida Ford at yford@new.fordlawpros.com.