This article addresses whether a “Beware of Dog(s)” sign on a property is sufficient to impute knowledge of dog’s dangerous propensities to its owner and/or whether it is suffices to impute knowledge of a dog’s dangerous propensities to the dog owner’s landlord.
The answer is relatively straightforward and weighs heavily on the standard of care or duty expected of the dog owner and the landlord. For the dog owner, one needs only establish that the animal’s owner should have known of his/her dog’s viciousness or dangerous propensities. However, the “should have known” standard in insufficient basis for finding a landlord liable. With the landlord, the standard is “actual knowledge” of a dog’s dangerous propensities. In either case, a warning sign, while relevant, is only one of several factors taken into consideration in attributing liability to the dog owner and/or the landlord. It is even harder to establish liability on an out-of-possession landlord solely founded on the existence of a warning sign on his/her property. But if the landlord exercised exclusive control over the premises and specifically permitted a dog on said premises, the presence of a warning sign becomes a crucially determinative factor.
I. Liability of Dog Owner
In Snyder v. Milton Auto Parts Inc., 428 A.2d 186, 188 (Pa. Super. 1981), the court adopted the following test to determine whether a dog owner had knowledge of his/her dog’s viciousness or dangerous propensities:
- Complaints brought to the owner's attention
- Fighting with other dogs
- Frequent confinement of the dog(s)
- Warning signs on the dog owner's premises
- Statements by the owner as to the dog's character.
In Snyder, “Beware of Dogs” signs (warning signs) were placed all around the premises. Id. But, there were other factors that played a role in the court’s ultimate decision in that case, including that the dogs in question were observed on prior occasions to be jumping on the restraining fence (frequent confinement) and trying to get out at anyone who came around. The dogs had escaped from the grounds and had to be driven off a neighbor’s property on at least three occasions, and the dogs were locked up during the day and let out at night. Id. The court concluded that:
As to the knowledge which the [dog] owner must possess in order to charge him with liability … actual notice of the viciousness or mischievous propensities of the animal are not necessary. It is sufficient if he knew or should have known that the animal was a probable cause of harm…. where it is shown that on previous occasions the dog had rushed at other persons in a vicious manner, and that his keeper had been obliged to call him off, or that the dog had chased a witness for the plaintiff and had been beaten off by stones, and was always growling at passersby, the viciousness of the dog is sufficiently established. Id.
Thus, in Snyder, it appears the court did not plainly rest its conclusion on the warning sign alone. It looked to other factors as well, which may well have been given greater weight. This is apparent from the fact that the court nowhere mentions anything concerning the warning sign in its conclusion. Id. at 188-89. Its only reference to the warning sign is with respect to the adoption of the standard itself.
In Sheptak v. Wagner, 23 Pa. D. & C.3d 46 (1982), the court, in adopting Snyder, did refer to the sign, but only to point out that the sign was in reference to a dog different from the one that attacked the plaintiff. In Sheptak, the court ruled in favor of the defendant, and similar to Snyder, the court referred to the various other factors adopted by the Snyder court as well. Id. Although it was unclear what weight the court attached to each factor, it was apparent that the court did not consider any one factor to be controlling. Id.
Thus, while a “Beware of Dog(s)” warning sign is certainly relevant, a plaintiff is unlikely to be successful in establishing liability against the defendant dog owner if they cannot make a sufficient showing on some of the other factors of the dog’s dangerous propensity.
II. Liability of Landlord
The burden on the plaintiff is much higher with respect to establishing liability on the out-of-possession landlord. Although only one case in Pennsylvania makes a passing reference to a “Beware of Dogs” sign, all cases agree that the plaintiff must sufficiently establish that the landlord has “actual knowledge” of his tenant’s harboring of a dog with vicious or dangerous propensities. Rosenberry v. Evans, 48 A.3d 1255, 1262 (Pa. Super. 2012); and Palermo by Palermo v. Nails, 483 A.2d 871, 873 (Pa. Super 1984). In fact, the court specifically concluded that the “should have known” standard applicable to dog owners, is not applicable to landlords and that instructing the jury on such an expansive standard is grounds for a new trial. Underwood ex rel. Underwood v. Wind, 954 A.2d 1199, 1208 (Pa. Super. 2008).
In Rosenberry, the court makes a specific reference to warning signs stating that there were no “dangerous dog” signs posted on the property sufficient to provide notice to the landlord. 48 A.3d at 1264. But even in Rosenberry, the court refers to the warning sign as only one of several factors to take into account. The court also noted that there was no evidence of prior complaints or dog attacks brought to the landlord’s attention. Id.
Furthermore, the court rejected inferences of actual knowledge of a dog’s dangerous propensities based on the mere fact that the landlord had visited the premises occupied by the tenant on previous occasions. Id. In other words, the court stated that knowledge that a tenant harbors a dog was insufficient to prove actual knowledge of a dog’s dangerous propensities. The court also refused to impute knowledge of rumors in the community concerning the dog’s dangerous propensities as inadmissible hearsay. Id. These cases suggest that the mere presence of a warning sign is relevant, but insufficient, in and of itself, to establish actual knowledge or liability on the part of a landlord defendant.
However, the common theme in all these cases was that the landlord was an out-of-possession landlord. In cases where a landlord permits a tenant to keep a dog on the premises and “maintains such a degree of control over the premises that he can eliminate the presence of the dangerous animal” so as to constitute “almost exclusive control over the premises,” actual knowledge is established whether or not there was a warning sign. Palermo by Palermo, 483 A.2d at 873. Note that the standard for all landlords, whether out-of-possession or otherwise, is still “actual knowledge.”
In Palermo, the landlord let her nephew live rent-free on her premises, who was therefore held to be a tenant at sufferance. The landlord visited her nephew on several occasions and was in close proximity to the dog. Id. The most damaging of all evidence in that case was the fact that a police officer informed the landlord 18 months earlier that her nephew’s dog attacked another child before. The police officer asked the landlord to keep the dog restrained. Id at 873-74. However, although the attack took place while the dog was restrained (tied up) and even though there were no warning signs, the court ruled that the landlord possessed actual knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensities. Id. at 873.
It thus appears that one’s chances of success against a landlord depends on two main factors: 1) whether the landlord was an out-of-possession landlord or one who had exclusive control of the premises, and 2) whether the landlord had actual knowledge. Thus, a plaintiff has a difficult mountain to climb in establishing actual knowledge for an out-of-possession landlord, but that is not so with a landlord who has exclusive control of the premises. Based on the above, one can confidently state that a warning sign is insufficient by itself to establish liability on an out-of-possession landlord; but in the case of a landlord who has exclusive control of and specifically permitted a dog on the premises, a warning sign may in fact play a crucial role in establishing actual knowledge.
The answer to the questions posed is one dependent on the standard of care expected from the respective defendants – dog owner and landlord. For the dog owner, we need only establish that the dog owner should have known of his/her dog’s viciousness or dangerous propensities. However, with the landlord, the standard is “actual knowledge” of a dog’s dangerous propensities. In either case, a warning sign is only one of several factors taken into consideration in establishing liability on the dog owner and/or the landlord. In both cases, we are unlikely to succeed in establishing liability if our claim is founded solely on the warning sign. However, that is not to say that a warning sign is irrelevant.
Regardless, our burden in establishing liability on an out-of-possession landlord is much higher and our claim will most certainly fail if we base it solely on the warning sign. But, if it so happens that a landlord defendant specifically permitted the dog owner defendant to have his/her dog on the premises, and if the landlord had exclusive control over the premises, the value of a warning sign as evidence substantially increases.