Did you know that thirty-two percent of American households count a dog among the family? That’s 62.4 million dogs! Many of these dogs are located in association-controlled communities and neighborhoods, and with so many dogs, there are bound to be some problems.

    While most dogs are gentle creatures, who wasn’t horrified when they heard about the San Francisco woman mauled to death by a 120 pound dog? A jury convicted the owner of the dog of second degree murder, and found her husband guilty of involuntary manslaughter, even though he wasn’t present at the time of the attack. The prosecution successfully argued that the dog owners were irresponsible owners of dangerous pets that had ignored many instances when the dogs threatened other people.

    In two Florida decisions, Barrwood Homeowners Association, Inc. v. Maser, 675 So.2d 983 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996), and Sanzare v. Varesi, 681 So.2d 785 (Fla. 4th DCA 1996), homeowners associations were put on notice that they too can be found liable, at least in the civil context, for dog bites occurring on common areas. Each of these cases held that Florida homeowners associations may be liable when a bad dog harms someone within the community if the association was previously aware of the dog’s vicious propensities. Because these homeowner association rulings will most likely also apply to Florida condominiums and cooperative associations, these decisions are important to all Florida community associations and their members.

    Unfortunately, there is little in these decisions to guide associations as to what constitutes a 'vicious' dog. However, it is clear that any association officer, director, employee or agent who has knowledge of a dog that has chased, bitten, attacked, or threatened anyone, or that has been declared a 'vicious dog' by any animal control agency, should inform the appropriate association representative. The association should then take steps to prevent injury, which may include having the dog removed from the premises. If there is the threat of an immediate danger, animal services or law enforcement personnel should be called. In addition, associations should educate residents about the importance of controlling their dogs.

    Revised rules and regulations regarding pet owners, or amendments to the documents of an association, can be utilized to inform residents of what is expected when dogs are taken outside the home. Remember that pet rules are about people with pets, not just pets. For example, a leash rule should clearly state that owners must keep dogs on leashes at all times while walking them in the community. There should also be an understanding as to what is expected if an owner allows a dog to behave badly or threaten others within the community, along with an enforcement mechanism in place should the homeowner not comply with the requested action.

    Obviously, the best time to revise a pet policy is before there is a problem. Review your documents today to determine whether you have rules that sit, stay, and heel!

The firm of Taylor & Carls, P.A., with offices located in Maitland, Melbourne and Daytona Beach, Florida, was founded in 1981 and has practiced in the area of community association law since that date. This edition prepared by Patrick C. Howell, Esq., of Taylor & Carls, P.A. The information contained in The Association e-Lawyer should not be acted upon without professional legal advice.

©2004 Taylor & Carls, P.A. All Rights Reserved.
The firm can be reached at 407-660-1040.
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