ANNAPOLIS – An apartment landlord is responsible for a fatal pit bull attack on a visiting toddler, Maryland’s highest court ruled Wednesday, narrowly reversing an intermediate court decision.
The Appeals Court of Maryland ruled 4-3 that the Baltimore City apartment landlord must pay about $6.2 million to the child’s parents, because the landlord allowed the tenant to keep the pit bull against a no-pet rule and even though the dog was known to be aggressive.
The court majority held that the landlord had a responsibility to enforce the rules because pit bulls, particularly this one, constituted foreseeable harm.
The dissenting opinion cautions that the judgment may cause landlords to evict renters with dogs more often.
Georgetown University law professor Michael Diamond said the case could have broad implications for landlord responsibility in Maryland.
“Suppose someone had a flammable liquid in their apartment,” he said. “Then if anyone was hurt, the landlord would be responsible.”
According to court records, Shanita Matthews and her 16- month-old son, Tevin Williams, were visiting tenant Shelly Morton’s apartment in east Baltimore in February 1994 when Morton’s dog, “Rampage,” grabbed Tevin’s neck and shook him. Tevin died an hour after arriving at the hospital.
In November 1995, the Circuit Court of Baltimore City found apartment owner Amberwood Associates Inc. and apartment manager Monocle Management Ltd. responsible for Tevin’s death and Matthew’s emotional pain. It ordered damages totaling $5.9 million to be split between Matthews and Tevin’s father, Andre T. Williams.
Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals reversed the judgment in September 1997, ruling that landowners have no duty to protect social guests of a tenant.
The Appeals Court disagreed Wednesday and added about $300,000 to the damage award for emotional suffering.
Gregory L. VanGeison, lawyer for Amberwood Associates, argued that a landlord has no control over what goes on inside a tenant’s apartment. He said the no-pets rule was in the apartment building lease, but so was a prohibition against installing venetian blinds and carpeting.
The landlord should not be liable if all the rules are not followed, VanGeison argued.
Freeman countered that the dog’s dangerous tendencies were known by the landlord. Apartment employees testified in Circuit Court that they had complained about the dog.
“A landlord doesn’t have to enforce terms simply because they’re in the lease, but if it knows of and can control a dangerous condition, it has a responsibility to do so,” Freeman said.
The court majority agreed.
“Coupled with the knowledge of past vicious behavior by the animal, the extremely dangerous nature of pit bull dogs and the foreseeability of harm … the landlord’s duty was breached,” the majority wrote.
But Appeals Court Judges Howard Chasanow, Dale Cathell and Lawrence Rodowsky disagreed. In the dissent, they wrote that Amberwood Associates did not harbor the pit bull. If anything, the suit should be against Morton for keeping a dangerous dog, they wrote.
The three judges also asserted that the toddler’s mother was at fault because she had visited numerous times and knew the dog’s temperament.
The mother’s lawyer agreed the tenant was partly responsible, but said Morton left the state and could not be located.
Mel Herzberger, former president of Apartment Builders & Owners Council, a Maryland trade group for landlords, said he agreed with the court decision but added “courts need to work with landlords to evict tenants that don’t follow the rules.”