Case Analysis: Personal Injury Case Involving Vicious Dog Bite Injury

Case: Morehead v. Deitrich, 932 N.E.2d 1272 (Ind.Ct.App. 2010).

Facts of Case:   Deitrich owned a single family residence in Logansport, and rented the residence to Sanders, who owned a pit bull.  Even though the lease agreement provided that there were to be no pets owned by the tenants, Deitrich made an exception even though he admitted he knew of the dangerous and vicious propensities of the pit bull.  Morehead was delivering mail and after placing mail in the residence’s mailbox, she heard the dog and was ultimately bitten by the pit bull, sustaining injuries.  She filed her Complaint against Deitrich for personal injuries, and Deitrich filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that since he did not retain any control over the property, he owed no duty to Morehead.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the landlord, and Morehead filed a Motion to Correct Error, which was denied by the trial court.

Issue:   Did Deitrich (the landlord) maintain sufficient control over the leased premises for liability to attach for the injuries to the postal worker?

Holding:   The Court of Appeals noted that in order to prevail against a landowner for the acts of a tenant’s dog, the Plaintiff must demonstrate both that the landowner retained control over the property and that he or she had actual knowledge that the dog had dangerous propensities.  There was no dispute between the parties that Deitrich had knowledge of the propensities of the pit bull, and the parties also agreed that Deitrich did not have control of the premises when the dog bite occurred.  Morehead argued that since the landlord had knowledge of the dog’s dangerous propensities at the time the lease agreement was executed, the landlord had a duty to prevent a dangerous condition under a premises liability theory.

The Court did note that actual physical possession of property at the precise moment an accident happens is not always dispositive on the question of control for premises liability purposes if there is evidence that another party was in a better position to prevent the harm that occurred.  However, The Court held that this exception applies when there is a dangerous condition or “property defect” which created a substantial risk of injury.  They declined to hold that the pit pull was a “property defect” and also found that it was not reasonably foreseeable that the dog would escape its confinement and bite someone who comes upon the property.  The Court stated that the harm in this case was caused not by any failure of the landlord, but rather by the tenant’s failure to adequately confine the dog.  Thus, they found that the trial court properly granted Deitrich’s motion for summary judgment in this case.

Lesson To Be Learned:   Landlords: don't rent to tenants with vicious pets. Pet owners: make sure you have insurance in case your pet bites someone.



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