Wright v. Schum

Decision Date02 November 1989
Docket NumberNo. 18282,18282
Citation781 P.2d 1142,105 Nev. 611
Parties, 89 A.L.R.4th 359 Jason WRIGHT, a Minor by his Mother and Next Friend, Debra K. Wright, Appellants, v. John SCHUM, Respondent.
CourtNevada Supreme Court

SPRINGER, Justice:

This is a dog bite case. Eleven-year-old Jason Wright was walking home from a day's swimming when an escaped pit bulldog attacked him and injured him severely. Jason obtained a jury verdict in his favor against the owner of the pit bulldog, but the court dismissed his case against respondent Schum, who was the landlord and owner of the premises from which the dog escaped.

Schum claims that as a landlord he cannot be held liable for the negligent conduct of his tenants for injuries caused to third persons not injured on the leased premises. It is quite clear under Nevada law that Schum is correct in this assertion and that he cannot be held liable as a landlord. We recognized, as late as 1985, in Turpel v. Sayles, 101 Nev. 35, 692 P.2d 1290 (1985), the traditional common law rule "that once a lessee [has] taken possession of property, the landlord [is] not subject to liability ... [to] others coming onto the land, for physical harm caused by a dangerous condition on the premises...." Although Jason invites us to extend the scope of landlord liability to include cases in which injuries are sustained by one who is bitten by a tenant's dog under circumstances in which the landlord has actual knowledge of the presence of a dangerous animal on the premises and in which the landlord has the right to remove the animal by evicting the tenant, we decline to do so. Contra Uccello v. Laudenslayer, 44 Cal.App.3d 504, 118 Cal.Rptr. 741 (1975). The trial court, in dismissing landlord Schum from the lawsuit, wisely observed that holding landlords liable for the actions of their tenants' vicious dogs by requiring them to evict tenants with dangerous dogs would merely result in the tenants' moving off to another location with their still dangerous animals. The trial judge likened this approach to the case of a "Typhoid Mary," who was outcast from one place only to continue her deadly disease-spreading activity at another place. In Nevada, Schum's failure to evict a tenant known to him to be harboring a dangerous pit bulldog will not alone provide grounds, as it did in the abovecited Uccello case, for holding a landlord tortiously liable for attacks by a tenant's dog.

Another reason why the Uccello rule of landlord liability cannot be applied to this case is that, unlike Uccello, the injuries to Jason did not occur on the rented premises and, except for defective perimeter fencing mentioned below, the injuries were not directly related to a dangerous condition of the premises.

As a consequence of the general rules of law relating to landlord liability, recently confirmed in the Turpel case, Schum cannot be held liable by reason of his status as a landlord nor by reason of his failure to evict a tenant with a dog known by him to be dangerous. This does not end the matter, however.

In Turpel we observed correctly that merely because a person had the legal status of being an owner or landlord, such person did not enjoy immunity from tort liability. 1 As put in Turpel, there is no reason to except "landlords or property owners from the general application of the basic principles of tort law." Turpel, 101 Nev. at 39, 692 P.2d at 1293. Schum, obviously, "as other persons must exercise reasonable care not to subject others to an unreasonable risk of harm." Id. at 38, 692 P.2d at 1292 (quoting Sargent v. Ross, 113 N.H. 388, 308 A.2d 528, 534 (1973)).

The question in this case, then, is not whether Schum is liable to Jason as a landlord, but rather whether he is liable "as other persons" for the exercise of due care in not subjecting Jason to an unreasonable risk of harm. Put another way: Is there evidence in this record which, if believed by a jury or fact finder, would support a finding that Schum failed to exercise due care in subjecting Jason and others to an unreasonable risk of harm? We come to the conclusion that Schum's conduct with respect to the escaping pit bulldog could be viewed as creating an unreasonable risk of harm to Jason and others who were open to attack by this dog when he escaped from the custody of his owners. Let us now examine the facts that support this conclusion.

The owners of the pit bulldog, the Pitzers, were month-to-month tenants of Schum at the time the dog escaped from the yard and mangled Jason. When the Pitzers moved into the house, they did not tell Schum that they had a pit bulldog. Schum found this out only when a neighbor, Denise Austin, complained to him that the Pitzers had a pit bulldog and that it had escaped from its yard on two occasions and attacked their dogs, seriously injuring one and killing the other. In addition to his attacks on the Austins' dogs, the Austins observed that the Pitzers' pit bulldog, Buddy, would become agitated and very aggressive when he saw the Austins in their own backyard. On such occasions, Buddy would lunge at the Austins, often wedging his head between the boards of the fence, in an apparent attempt to break through to get at the Austins. Denise Austin and her family were so afraid that the pit bulldog would break into their yard again and injure them that they gave up the use of their backyard.

Denise Austin's husband testified that he was very concerned about the dog's aggressiveness. He stated, "On all occasions [I] carried a can of wasp knock-down spray with me in case the dog happened to come through the fence. I had a loaded twenty-two pistol next to my back door."

Schum claims that he did not know that pit bulldogs were dangerous to humans and specifically denies knowing that this pit bulldog was dangerous, except perhaps where other dogs were concerned. That Schum was on notice that the dog would be dangerous if he escaped from the yard is supported by his exposure to the "Beware of the Dog" sign on the front door of the house and by Schum's promise to the Austins that he would "take care of the problem." According to Denise Austin, Schum agreed that he would make the Pitzers get rid of the dog or move out. It certainly can be argued that if he did not think the dog was dangerous, he would not have so agreed. Under these circumstances, a jury could have properly concluded that Schum knew that the dog could be dangerous to others if the dog escaped from the yard. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that Schum allowed the Pitzers to stay on only on their promise that they would at all times keep the dog in the house or in the yard on a chain. Had he not some apprehension about the dog's dangerous nature he would not have insisted, at pain of losing a tenant, that the Pitzers secure the dog in some manner. Shortly after Schum gave this ultimatum to the Pitzers, the pit bulldog, unchained, broke through the fence and attacked the dog of another neighbor, the Andersons.

The question comes down to whether under these circumstances Schum can be judged to be free of negligence as a matter of law and thus entitled to dismissal under Rule 41(b).

If Schum is to be held liable under "the basic principles of tort law" (Turpel, above), it must be as a person who has negligently undertaken with respect to the pit bulldog to perform the duty of due care owed by the Pitzers. The applicable principle of tort law is set out in section 324A(b) of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which reads as follows:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person or his things, is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to protect his undertaking, if


(b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person....

Parsing the Restatement, we see that any liability on the part of Schum in this case must be based on:

1. The presence of a duty to Jason on the part of Pitzer to protect Jason and others from the risk of harm by the pit bulldog. (That there was such a duty has been adjudicated by the judgment of liability against the Pitzers in this case.)

2. An undertaking by Schum of the duty, or a portion of it, owed by Pitzer to Jason.

3. Negligence on the part of Schum in the performance of that duty.

The facts in this case, taken in the light most favorable to Jason, seem to support a conclusion that to some degree at least Schum undertook the task of securing the pit bulldog and of keeping him from escaping and becoming dangerously at large. 2 If Schum did undertake to share the Pitzers' duty of protecting the public from an escaped and dangerous pit bulldog, there is little or no question that he acted in a negligent manner. The most important question before us, then, becomes whether Schum undertook or partially undertook Pitzers' duty to protect Jason and others from harm.

First, it should be noted that the mere advice or warning by one person to another that care should be taken to avoid a certain risk does not in itself create an undertaking and consequent liability on the part of one giving such advice. Had Denise Austin, for example, extracted a promise from the Pitzers that the dog would be kept chained as a means of protection against the risk of harm by the dog, Denise Austin could not be held liable simply because she had tried to get Pitzer to secure the dog and was ineffectual in keeping the dog from doing harm. Trying to prevent harm by warning or advising is certainly not the kind of "undertaking" contemplated by the quoted Restatement section. The present case is different from this, however. Schum clearly had the power to enforce his demand that Pitzer "take care" of the...

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