When a 13-year-old boy suffered serious injuries after he was attacked by a pit bull, his mother sought to hold several parties accountable. One of those was her landlord. The owner of the dog was both a tenant of the same rental property, as well as an employee who worked as an on-call maintenance and property management services worker.
This unique situation, weighed recently by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, meant that claims against the landlord could be predicated on two separate legal theories: Premises liability and vicarious liability/ respondeat superior. Premises liability refers to the duty of a property owner/ manager to ensure the site is reasonably safe for those who are there lawfully. Landlords owe a duty of care to both tenants and visitors. Vicarious liability with regard to the employer-employer relationship is predicated by the doctrine of respondeat superior, which is Latin for “let the master answer.” It holds that employers may be liable for the negligent actions of their employees – even if the employer wasn’t personally negligent.
In this case, plaintiff lived in her apartment with her 13-year-old son, who was invited by his neighbor’s girlfriend’s daughter to come swim in the neighbor’s pool. That neighbor was also the maintenance worker employed by the landlord. Landlord was reportedly aware his employee/ tenant kept a dog, but had no reason to believe the dog was dangerous. When the two young teens went into the fenced back yard where the pool was located, the employee/ tenant exited his rear door to the back yard, alongside his dog.
The dog reportedly approached the teen boy, glared at him and then bit him on the leg, causing the boy to suffer severe injuries.
The boy’s mother filed a personal injury dog bite lawsuit on behalf of her son against both the landlord and the tenant/ employee, alleging tenant/ employee possessed a dangerous dog, he negligently failed to properly and reasonably secure that dog and was at all pertinent times an agent/ servant/ employee of the landlord and was maintaining the property for the benefit of the landlord and acting in the course of his business.
Landlord filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing there was no genuine issue of material fact in dispute as to whether the incident occurred in an area controlled by the employee/ tenant, that the employee/ tenant was not acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the bite or that the dog had any vicious propensity. (In North Carolina, Section 67 of North Carolina General Statutes allows dog owners to be liable for bites if the dog was “dangerous, “as defined by state law and if the dog injured a person or damaged properly. Civil dog bite law in North Carolina allows strict liability in these cases, meaning the owner of the dog can be found liable for injuries caused by the dog regardless of whether the owner used reasonable care to prevent such injuries.)
The court granted motion for summary judgment on these points.
Soon thereafter, plaintiff filed a motion for a default judgment against the employee/ tenant, who did not appear at an alternative dispute resolution session. Court granted this motion and after a hearing on damages, at which that defendant also failed to show, the judge awarded $75,000 plus interests and costs.
Plaintiff then appealed the summary judgment in favor of the landlord. Plaintiff argued the question of whether defendant employee/ tenant was acting in the course and scope of employment was a question of fact to be properly reserved for a jury, rather than a judge. However, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed. The court held that a determination of whether a worker was acting in the scope and course of employment can be a matter of law, and in this case, both parties agreed on the material facts leading to this conclusion.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Canney v. Strathglass Holdings, LLC, April 6, 2017, Maine Supreme Judicial Court
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