Pet restrictions are prevalent in condominium and homeowners’ association governing documents. Some restrict dog breed types, such as Pit Bulls, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds, and others restrict animals based on weight. Many people, including some who are unfamiliar with the risks associated with injuries caused by pets, question the rationale for restricting dog breeds or imposing weight limits. This brief article discusses an association’s potential for liability and some steps an association may consider to mitigate risks associated with members’ dogs.
Criticisms of breed restrictions are understandable because there does not appear to be a consensus or conclusive scientific evidence either proving or disproving the theory that certain breeds may be genetically predisposed to behave more aggressively than others. In other words, there does not appear to be scientific consensus that Pit Bulls are naturally more aggressive than Chihuahuas. Furthermore, dog-bite data is often based on anecdotal reports of victims who assume the dog breed based on physical characteristics and not DNA testing. Notwithstanding, it is reasonable to believe that a large dog is more likely to cause a more damage or greater injury than a small dog if it does attack someone, which some argue justifies imposing weight limitations or restricting large dog breeds.
Irrespective of whether you agree with some of the premises of breed restrictions, it is important to understand that homeowners’ associations have been held liable for dog attacks occurring on common areas. According to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, the question is whether there is sufficient evidence for the jury to determine that the association had knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensities. Barrwood Homeowners Ass’n, Inc. v. Maser, 675 So. 2d 983, 984 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996). If so, the association may be held liable for the victim’s injuries, potentially including hospital bills, rehabilitation expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages, and any other provable damages proximately caused by the attack.
Aside from imposing breed or weight limitations, condominium and homeowners’ associations can consider other measures to mitigate their (and their members) risk. First, associations should ensure there are no limitations or exclusions in insurance coverage for injuries caused by certain dog breeds. All insurance policies are not created equal and a cheap policy might offer limited protection and exclude claims associated with certain breeds. Also, an association can consider imposing an obligation on dog owners to obtain insurance covering damages caused by dogs and require proof of insurance upon request (of course, there is an administrative burden associated with ensuring owners’ compliance). Further, the association can consider requiring dog owners to indemnify the association for any claims made against the association resulting from a dog attack, which coincides with the insurance obligation.
Again, the purpose of this article is to demonstrate that an association has a risk of liability for injuries caused by members’ pets. If your association is concerned with the risk of liability and would like to consider taking mitigating measures, the board of directors should seek the advice of a qualified attorney who focuses on representing community associations.