There are a batch of liability risks associated with operating any equestrian business, whether a boarding farm, a lesson barn, a training facility, or a trail riding concession. Most are of the equine variety: a rider is thrown or a horse falls; someone gets kicked, or bitten, or stepped on; tack breaks; an employee is negligent.

Nearly every state (all except California, Maryland, Nevada, and New York) has some sort of equine activity liability law on the books that can provide significant protection for equine professionals in many situations. Sometimes, though, liability arises because of another four-legged creature, a dog.

If you have clients on your property and they bring their dogs—likely because horses and dogs seem to go together—you may be inviting a lawsuit if the animal bites someone. In many states, laws dealing with liability for harm caused by dogs are much less forgiving than equine activity liability statutes.

Some states impose "strict liability" on the owner of a dog that injures someone. This means that the individual who was bitten can win a personal injury lawsuit without having to prove that the owner of the dog was at fault. Strict liability can be a powerful weapon in court for an injured person.

This doesn’t mean that you’re off the hook if a dog belonging to another person bites someone while the dog is on your property, however. It all depends on how state law defines "owner," and that definition may be broader than you expect. A recent decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court is a good illustration.

Who "Owns" This Dog?

Eight-year-old Brandon Benningfield was walking with his sister when they encountered a Rottweiler wandering loose. Brandon’s sister told her brother to stand still, but he was frightened and tried to run away. The dog chased Brandon and attacked him, causing numerous injuries that resulted in surgery and a lengthy stay in the hospital. Brandon’s mother sued the owner of the dog and the owner of the property which the dog’s owner was leasing.

The dog’s owner settled before the case made its way to trial. The landlord stayed in for a while, arguing that a landlord leasing property to a dog owner should not have the same legal responsibility as the real owner if the dog bites someone. The case against the landlord was dismissed, and the dismissal was affirmed by the state Court of Appeals.

Two questions were raised when the dispute reached the Kentucky Supreme Court: (1) can a landlord qualify as a "statutory owner" of a dog that bites someone, even if the landlord has no actual ownership interest in the animal?, and, (2) can a landlord’s liability extend to injures suffered off the landlord’s premises? The Court answered "yes" to the first and "no" to the second.

The Court’s reasoning was straightforward:

The statute that defines "owner" for purposes of dog bite liability (Kentucky Revised Statute 258.095(5)) includes the actual owner of the animal, as well as "every person who keeps or harbors the dog, or has it in his care, or permits it to remain on or about premises owned or occupied by him."  This broad definition obviously can include a landlord if a tenant owns a dog, but the Court qualified things a bit by holding that a landlord is a dog’s "owner" only on the premises. This meant that the landlord who leased property to the owners of the dog that attacked Brandon Benningfield qualified as a statutory owner subject to liability, but was not liable for the dog attack in this case because it occurred off the landlord's property.

This case arose in an urban setting and the decision didn’t mention horses or farms. Whether the same "statutory owner" reasoning imposes liability on a farm owner who rents a stall or pasture to a horse owner whose dog bites someone on the farm remains to be seen. State equine activity laws won't help. The possibility of dog bite liability should give any equine professional pause and should encourage development of a "dog policy" that might include liability waivers, insurance requirements, or an outright canine ban for clients and visitors to the facility.

If a dog that you neither own nor don’t control bites someone on your property, should you be held responsible?"