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Trailer park landlord owes no duty to young girl bit by prohibited pit bull

Kalynn Burnett, a 12-year old, was bit when she knocked on a neighbor's door while searching for her younger sister.  She lived in the Hillcrest Acres manufactured home community in Kalamazoo County.  When the neighbor opened her trailer door, the dog lunged and bit Kalynn.  It turned out that the dog had a history.  The animal control officer had been called on the dog once previously because it was allegedly chasing a child, and when the officer responded, he observed the dog attacking the window and door of the trailer.

The rules of the trailer park expressly prohibited the ownership of pitbulls.  The child's conservator or "next friend" argued that the park was partially responsible for Kalynn's injuries because it failed to enforce the pitbull rule and failed to threaten the owner/tenant with eviction.  The Court of Appeals judges disagreed on whether the girl's next friend stated a valid claim.  The two judge majority ruled in favor of dismissal, finding that there wasn't enough evidence of "vicious propensity" to put the landlord on notice.   The two judge majority concluded that the animal control officer's observation that the dog was "bouncing" against the window "trying to get through the window [to] people" and that it "would just go crazy" against the screen door, in a way that was "somewhat threatening" did not create a question of material fact with regard to whether the dog was "abnormally dangerous or usually vicious [sic]." 

The majority, including Judge Christopher Murray who always sides with insurers, also concluded that a landlord never owes a duty to control a tenant's vicious pets, as to hold to the contrary would "merely result in the tenants' moving off to another location with their still dangerous animals..."  The majority judges also refused to recognize that the landlord had voluntarily assumed a duty to tenants by adopting the prohibition of pit bulls and other dangerous animals. 

Even though the park rules explicitly prohibited this breed of dog, the majority held that the trailer park owner owed no duty to enforce the rule, regardless of the extent of notice or violation.  These two judges concluded that judicial decisions from other states upholding a duty in this situation were not worthy guidance for Michigan (where insurance interests dominate the Legislature and courts).   

Judge Gleicher dissented and wrote a blistering opinion.  She pointed out that when tenants moved into the trailer park they were given written rules that explicitly prohibited pit bulls.  It was reasonable for tenants to rely upon those rules and their enforcement by the owners.  She also noted that the owner of this dog had consecutively violated this rule by the ownership of more than one previous pit bull, and that "each time she was 'written up' " by the park, she had "got rid of the dog."

The dissent also pointed out that the majority drew a false conclusion in relying upon an Alaskan precedent.  The dissenting judge noted that the Alaskan case recommended taking into account whether or not there should be "moral responsibility" for harboring a dog known to be vicious.  Given the ample evidence of this dog's violent behavior--and the presumption that pit bulls are too vicious to live in a trailer park, as evidenced by the park's rules--the Alaskan precedent would support a ruling against the owner under these circumstances.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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