The Massachusetts Appeals Court today dismissed a lawsuit by a man injured in a fall off his bicycle when another man's unsecured pit bull charged out of a yard and attacked the bike rider's dog, who had been trotting alongside him.
The bicycle rider sued both the dog's owner and the landlord. The court said the case against the owner "was settled," without providing additional details, but said it agreed with a Superior Court judge who dismissed the case against the landlord on the grounds the landlord was not to blame for the actions of his tenant's dog - even if the dog was a pit bull.
While we acknowledge that some pit bulls can be aggressive, see Nutt, 75 Mass. App. Ct. at 487, citing Commonwealth v. Santiago, 452 Mass. 573, 577-578 (2008) (pit bull is breed "commonly known to be aggressive"), we see no reason to treat them as "dangerous instrumentalities" like "firearms, explosives, poisonous drugs, or high tension electricity," which require the landowner's "closest attention and most careful precautions."
The court first noted that the state's dog-liability law only discusses dog owners, not their landlords, and so turned to common law - accepted legal practices not specifically codified in a statute - to consider whether that should be extended to the landlords of the dog owners.
To prevail on a negligence claim, Creatini [the bike rider] must prove that McHugh [the landlord] owed him a duty of reasonable care, that McHugh breached that duty, that damage resulted, and that there was a causal link between the breach of the duty and the damage.
The court noted that while there are some circumstances that allow for suits in cases involving third parties - for example, bar owners whose patrons get drunk and then crash a car. There has even been one case in which a tenant won a suit against a landlord when another tenant's pit bull injured the tenant's dog inside some shared space in their building.
But the case here involved a tenant's dog that ran off the landlord's property and onto a public street, the court continued.
Here, McHugh and Creatini had no special relationship. Indeed, they had never met. Creatini's injury did not occur on McHugh's property, but on a public street. Nothing in the summary judgment record indicates that McHugh was aware that Mills's dog was aggressive or prone to attack passers-by. In these circumstances, we agree with the judge's conclusion that "[a]n injury to a person running a leashed dog while riding a bicycle on a public street from a dog fight started by an unleashed dog is not a foreseeable event that warrants the imposition of a duty upon a landlord."
After rejecting the bicyclist's request to label pit bulls "dangerous instrumentalities," legally similar to guns and explosives, which would require "a duty of reasonable care on all owners of land where pit bulls are kept," the court switched from common law back to statutes, which it said "reflect a strong public policy" that any blame for the actions of dogs lies with their owners:
These statutes reflect a public policy that places responsibility for dogs, including pit bulls, on the owners and keepers of those dogs -- not on third-party landowners.