by Jonathan Stone Rankin, Esq. reprinted with permission
Pet rental or "flexible ownership" companies may be coming to Massachusetts soon; one in particular has announced an opening in Boston this year. With this new, unregulated industry comes a Pandora’s box of legal considerations that could potentially devastate consumers.
While the potential for animal abuse is apparent, consumers-used to renting cars and NetFlix-may not consider their legal exposure if the pet under their care harms someone. This is not to be taken lightly. Animal behaviorist and zoologist Dr. Patricia McConnell, animal behavior therapist Raymond McSoley, who founded the behavior department at Boston’s Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, and others concur: Renting pets is risky business.
They caution that constantly changing a dog or cat’s environment, caregiver and rules (e.g., will he be rewarded or hit for getting on the sofa?) may cause even a well-mannered pet to attack. Additionally, animals could cause injury unintentionally.
Massachusetts General Laws ch. 140, Â§155 imposes a strict liability standard to protect people and property harmed by dogs: The owner or keeper of a dog who causes injury to another or destruction of property bears the full responsibility of resultant damages. There are exceptions to this rule, i.e. if the owner or keeper can prove that the victim was trespassing or was teasing, tormenting or abusing the dog.
Certainly, the pet rental company could offer to indemnify or reimburse its clients. However, this does not necessarily protect clients from the stress of being sued.
And while the company also could offer some form of liability insurance, it may not provide adequate protection. As with any insurance policy, there is always fine print, often written in arcane language that consumers should-but typically do not-read. There may be costly deductibles as well as caps or limits, leaving pet rental clients to bear the remainder of the damages, which could amount to vast sums of money.
Consider the potential award for a child whose face has been scarred for life by a deep bite wound, or the frail elder who breaks a hip after being knocked to the ground by a frisky rental dog.Â Indeed, a recent dog bite case in Massachusetts resulted in a $350,000 settlement; the potential award could have been much higher.
Liability coverage may actually be a double-edged sword: If consumers perceive they’re protected from a lawsuit, what is their incentive to be careful and vigilant to protect others from injuries from their rental pets?
Additionally, there could be questions as to liability and coverage if the animal bites the renter.
Case law in Massachusetts has held that the keeper (i.e., the renter) would not be able to sue the pet rental company (i.e., the owner) for injuries or damages the keeper sustained as a result of being bitten or otherwise injured by their rental dog.
The concept of pets as rentable commodities may desensitize our society’s collective beliefs about the invaluable roles that companion animals play in our lives. We may start to question the intrinsic worth of these animals if we can just rent them at will and return them only to get another when we are bored with them. Animals are not disposable products for our consumption, as these companies would like us to believe.Â
For all of these reasons-consumer protection, public safety and moral-it would be best if Â these companies ceased to exist.
JONATHAN STONE RANKIN
The Animal Law Offices of Jonathan Stone Rankin, Esq.
P.O. Box 3311
Framingham, MA 01705-3311