Renters getting bitten

Scared of liability for dog bites, local landlords are increasingly telling tenants: get insurance, get rid of your pet or get out

Robinann Gibbs and her service dog Misha.

Robinann Gibbs and her service dog Misha.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Coming home to her Midtown Sacramento apartment, Robinann Gibbs greets Misha, her golden retriever, before checking her phone messages. There’s one from her landlord, Tom Radtke, talking about liability insurance coverage for the dog.

He feels “completely at risk” for not being covered by Gibbs’ insurance. His concern is that if Misha—who lounges at Gibbs’ feet as she listens to the messages—bites any visitor to the apartments, then he can also be held liable for damages.

“The injured party is not going to sue you alone, because you do not have much in assets,” Radtke says. “They (victims) will sue me too … and take away everything I have already worked for. I just can’t take that chance.” He urges Gibbs to continue finding dog bite insurance that also covers him. “This has to be your number one priority to keep the dog,” he declares, apologizing for delivering the bad news.

As the message ends, fear hits Gibbs. She’s left with the clear impression that she will lose Misha if she doesn’t get new insurance soon. She feels abused. How could he do this? Gibbs assumed that her landlord knew that Misha is a registered service dog that aids her physical disabilities.

Radtke’s worry about possible dog bite liability comes at a time when many landlords are worried that the public may get sue-happy after the notorious Diane Whipple case and other recent incidents where pet dogs have mauled people to death.

The Whipple case itself—a national sensation of gore, owner negligence and irrational court defenses—was one of the few events where dog owners were convicted of murder (that murder conviction was this week thrown out by a judge, leaving a manslaughter conviction and questions about whether there would be a retrial on the murder charge) and a landlord was sued for liability. In response, many landlords are prohibiting new dog ownership, requiring their tenants to get renter’s insurance that would shield the landlord from liability, raising rents to cover their own insurance or leveling an ultimatum: either you move or your dog does.

Respecting her landlord’s liability concerns, Gibbs recently got more than $1 million worth of AAA renter’s insurance coverage for Misha. She raised her coverage to such a height to make herself the solely liable owner, since she could not find dog bite insurance that also covers Radtke’s name.

“I believe that all assistance dog owners should be responsible for their dogs,” she said. Gibbs has several health problems that limit her mobility and uses Misha to help pick up objects and exercise her weakened muscles. Yet her landlord says the policy isn’t enough.

Saying he was influenced by the advice of his insurance agent, an attorney and the liability issues raised by the Whipple case, Radtke is certain that anyone who gets bitten by Misha on his property is more likely to sue him. Gibbs is his only dog-owning tenant, and he will not allow any new dogs into his apartment for safety’s sake.

Gibbs insists that Radtke’s highly speculative concerns conflict with her rights as both a tenant and a disabled person. She argues that state and federal law prohibit this kind of landlord interference with her rights to have a dog like Misha to help her accomplish tasks we take for granted.

Gibbs is getting advice from Disability Rights Advocacy to see if she can legally challenge Radtke’s request. A staff person at the Human Rights and Fair Housing Commission said that under California Civil Code 54 and the Americans With Disabilities Act, Gibbs should not be obligated to get renter’s insurance for her assistance dog.

During her insurance hunt, Gibbs said that Radtke offered her a loan to help pay for his desired policy and recently found a Palo Alto insurance company that offers dog bite co-coverage for landlords. However, she is sticking to her guns and pushing her civil defense, as her Commission contact suggested.

The former medical researcher is preparing a letter to Radtke that explains her position and includes excerpts from the state law that says a landlord is only liable if he or she knew the dog was dangerous and had the ability to remove it. Without these conditions, says Dan McCoy, an attorney who specializes in dog bite cases, it is rare that landlords are held liable in most cases.

“Dog owners usually wouldn’t tell their landlords they are moving in with a vicious animal,” he said.

Whipple’s landlord, Rudolph Koppl, was targeted with a wrongful death civil suit for neglecting the fact that the canine killers, Bane and Hera, were widely known by his tenants to be violent, and even threatened their victim once. The case is still pending and it has not been reported whether Koppl has liability insurance. Overall, McCoy said that insurance is the backbone of dog bite civil suits, where he can only prosecute insured dog owners to win his clients any money.

Explaining his support for required renter’s insurance for pet and service dogs, McCoy wants everyone to mark his words: “Any dog can bite.” The most common excuse he gets from owners of dogs that attacked people is their professed ignorance of their animals’ erratic behavior.

Last April, just an hour after dog owners Marjorie Knoller and husband Robert Noel were found guilty of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter respectively for Whipple’s murder, Point Richmond landlord Mark Schultz notified all of his tenants of a new policy. He said he will raise their rents to pay for over $1 million in additional liability coverage for dog bites at his apartment, and told his two dog-owning tenants they will eventually have to lose their pets. There is worry that Schultz could set a new trend of landlords threatening eviction to their tenants who do not acquire dog bite insurance.

Gibbs said fear, more than anything else, is driving the landlords’ actions. “There is a heightened level of fear among property owners and this is understandable. However, the flame is being fueled by personal injury attorneys and hopefully the insurance industry is not going to jump into this and make it worse.”

The insurance industry has yet to be impacted by the Whipple case, according to Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network. However, his organization has seen some early tremors from clients.

“We’ve heard that some landlords are requiring new tenants to acquire insurance for their dogs,” he said. “The Whipple trial sent up a red flag that is causing insurance companies to look deeper into dog bite coverage.”

Moraga said these companies pay around $310 million in dog bite claims every year, a level that has been consistent in recent years. The Insurance Information Institute, another industry study group, argued that such coverage is important, claiming that over 4.7 million people annually are bitten by dogs, with 70 percent of those cases occurring on the owner’s property.

Executives at two major Sacramento area landlord associations consider the possibility of more dog bite claims from tenants and landlords to be too premature. “Time will tell if renter’s insurance will be a hot commodity after the Whipple case,” said Corey Kaylor, deputy director of the Sacramento Valley Apartment Association.

But to take caution, his organization recommends that its members enforce a no-pet policy to new tenants to quell any liability problems.

“We suggest that owners enforce them across the board,” he said. “Except for disabled people, pet owners aren’t a legal class. Not only do we want to prevent any liability damages, but we also want to protect the children in the neighborhoods from being attacked.”

While the Whipple trial was being held, an attorney who spoke at a Sacramento Housing Association conference advised members such as Merry Bernard and Phyllis Kaneff to enforce a no-dog policy. In turn, the two landlords now refuse to accept any new pet dogs on their properties.

“I haven’t talked to any insurance companies,” Kaneff explained. “But right after the decision in the San Francisco [Whipple] case, I took that policy to preclude any problems.”

Both women amended their rental agreements to require renter’s insurance coverage that would shield them from any dog bite liability. “It’s a benefit for the pet owner to carry tenant’s insurance that covers their liability, not specifically for dog bites,” said Bernard.

Such a change is more of a burden than a benefit to Midtown tenant Joe Sinclair. A month ago, he was dismayed to find a letter from Bernard informing him that he must get insurance for his pet dog Nita or else he will face eviction, due to the “recent events in San Francisco.” He could not understand his landlord’s notion of a possible attack from his 20-pound American Eskimo dog that usually lies down in every room she visits.

“Merry has seen my pet and knows that she’s not aggressive,” he said.

While he is open to accepting liability for Nita, Sinclair cannot see why he has to do everything to get Bernard off the hook. “I don’t have to provide insurance for a firearm or my steel-toed boots, why should I buy insurance for my dog?” Given her history of steady rent hikes since she bought his apartment building two years ago, he suspects a gouging scheme.

“Somebody’s getting rich quick, and it’s not me,” he said.

Sinclair had to pay a $200 pet deposit for Nita, which he believed should have covered his renter’s insurance, after moving to a downstairs apartment for a $975 rent. Sinclair went to the Fair Housing and Employment Agency to question the legality of the pet insurance requirement, but was told the landlord is able to enforce this policy. Bernard responded that she did not raise his rent to cover her insurance, but fairly gave the same policy to her three other dog-owning tenants in her 48 apartments.

“I have no problem with the dogs,” she said. “Some apartments don’t allow pets at all.” Like Sinclair, the other dog owners all purchased renter’s insurance for their pets, which he hopes his landlord will accept.

As for Sacramento tenants who could not keep their pets under their landlords’ new no-dog policies, many of them had to face a painful choice. The Sacramento Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported an increase of surrendered dogs to their shelter since the Whipple case. They now receive an estimated 200 dogs a month, because more landlords fear liability problems, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Maddox.

“A lot of landlords aren’t even adding renter’s insurance into their [rental] contracts, where you are either losing your dog or getting evicted,” she said.

These animals come from supposedly aggressive breeds like Rotweillers and pit bulls, and yet they all passed the SPCA’s behavior test and were given up for adoption. “We then give the new owners their pets’ behavior evaluation sheet that would give the landlord no liabilities,” Maddox added. With this legal defense evidence, the SPCA is promoting more dog-friendly housing.

After her search for dog bite insurance that would cover Radtke’s name, Gibbs is uncertain about her future in her apartment, but is confident about her ADA protection. Ultimately, Gibbs hopes for a pleasant resolution for her situation with her landlord.

“I understand his position,” she said. “It’s a tough problem that people have to work out in a way that must be reasonable.”