Property Management is a Liability Rich Endeavor
By Victoria Cowart
Property Management is a liability rich endeavor. In fact, the National Apartment Association’s Education Institute (NAAEI) offers a Certified Apartment Manager (CAM) course, and there is one full module on “Risk Management.” It is in fact, a FIVE-hour module. As with all NAAEI programs, the CAM program is worth your consideration.
The module covers risk management, risk assessments, and minimizing risks–financial, physical, liability, environmental, employee and more. The most difficult part of risk management, in my personal (non-attorney) opinion as a long-term operator, is seeking out and discovering risk – uncovering risks that may be present that we are unaware of that may pose an unusual and unreasonable risk to those who visit or live in our communities. With customers, clients, team members, suppliers, and more all vying for our time each day, how do we go out and find risks that we do not know about? And how do we then resolve them, and thereby prevent liabilities from rearing their head – and potentially injuring our valued customers and visitors who we care for each day?
A recent ruling in North Carolina touches on this concern. It was called a “vicious dog bite” in the article, and it was the subject of a recent ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court – wherein a child was clearly harmed. Despite the heartache, the ruling was unanimous. In essence, the “landlord can’t be held liable for a child’s injuries caused by a dog owned by tenants because he wasn’t told the animal posed a danger to visitors.” Again, the ruling was unanimous. In today’s world unanimity is a rare thing. Wouldn’t you agree? Of course, if you read this case, you too will be in on the unanimity with those who consider situations like this just awful!
On the legal side, while I am not an attorney and this article is not to be considered legal advice, it is reasonably clear this ruling hinged on the Landlord’s knowledge. According to the author, at one point the dog’s owner shared that she had informed the landlord about a “first bite,” and then later testified that she had not. Also of note, the Animal Services in this county were involved in that first bite incident and ruled it a “minor bite.” Reading this article and tracking the events as they unfolded, you learn the dog owner knew; the county’s animal services knew; and yet, the Landlord truly did not know about a bite incident with this dog and yet was sued.
Further reading reveals the plaintiff asserted, and deposed a property management professional to this end, who shared the viewpoint that we Landlords should have taken the “beware of dog” signs the owners posted in the yard and the chain for the dog to be an indicator, a “flashing red light” if you will that we immediately had a “duty to examine potential problems.” Thankfully, the courts disagreed with this theory. Those of us in this industry would likely go so far as to say, that posting those signs and utilizing a chain are generally good liability protection measures. And possibly only an indicator of a dog with great escape skills!
So, what does this all say or mean? In short, liability situations or policies can be discontinued, retained, transferred, or controlled. Those are our options when dealing with risk. These owners took liability control actions and deployed liability control techniques—the signage and the chain—yet those actions were used against the landlord. As most of us know, it comes down to what we knew or should have known in such situations. We hear that again and again in liability cases, and in life in general.
This then reinforces that we should ask the right questions when addressing liabilities, document those answers, and then periodically ask those questions and document those answers again. Do what a “reasonable” person would because that is the standard, one standard, the courts will hold us to. And then, be sure to act on what you learn. Knowledge without action may be the end of your defense and cost you sleepless nights of regret.
If you’d like all the questions asked, and all the answers documented, and all of this to work seamlessly for you and with your teams, contact us at PetScreening.com. Our services are free to you, digital and easy, and we ask great questions – twenty-three in fact, in addition to obtaining other data points, regarding pets/animals in your communities. We paws to gather all of our pet parent’s answers to our questions, and we’re saving those records for our customers and asking them annually as well.
As this case revealed, this is a system you need to prevent or control such unfortunate situations – and to defend against them if they occur. Don’t lose sleep over this, snuggle with your pets, and then sleep soundly as our clients!
Victoria Cowart, CPM, NAAEI Faculty, and the Director Education & Outreach for PetScreening. For more information, please visit PetScreening.com.