Legal Articles

How Iowa's strict rules can affect liablity for dog owners, dog sitters, and landlords

By Rob Howard III | Hopkins & Huebner, P.C. | Des Moines Office

Attorney Robert Howard III

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are more than 4.5 million people bitten by dogs each year in the United States alone1.  Of that 4.5 million, 1 out of every 5 – or just fewer than 900,000 – will require medical attention. While certain breeds do have higher rates of biting, the real indicator is the individual dog’s history and behavior. It is clear that Rodgers and Hammerstein did not consult with an attorney prior to writing The Sound of Music. If they had, a different song would exist. ‘When the dog bites, when the bee sting, when one is feeling sad, one should simply remember that Iowa imposes strict liability on dog owners.’

Iowa’s strict liability for dog bites creates liability for the owner of the dog if their dog injures another party. However, if that party is injured while committing an unlawful act which contributes to the injury or the dog has rabies, and the owner did not know or should not have reasonably known, then strict liability will not attach. While fairly straight forward, there are many things that can change depending on the facts. One is the idea of ownership. Ownership can be both the common understanding, but, in Iowa for purposes of this statute, it can also mean one who harbors the dog on their premises in the usual manner of an owner. Obviously, this can expand the individuals who may have responsibility for the dog.

Photo of a sign reading, "Beware of dog"Outside of the strict liability imposed by the Iowa Legislature, Iowa courts have also found a duty of reasonable care for premise owners. Landlords could potentially have liability for their tenants’ dogs. Landlords have a duty to keep common areas reasonably safe by excluding dogs known to be vicious from those areas. Should an injury occur in a common area controlled, jointly or exclusively, by a landlord and the landlord knew, or should have known, of the dog’s vicious propensities, then the landlord may have liability for the injury caused by their tenant’s dog. 

Whether the owner of a dog, a long-term sitter for a dog, or a landlord of tenants with dogs, consulting with an attorney before a dog bite occurs will let one know their duties and obligations. When a dog bite occurs, both the victim and those with potential liability should consult with an attorney to review the specific facts and circumstances surrounding the dog bite.