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Pet-friendly businesses pose hidden risks

January 18, 2019
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Imagine taking your car in for an oil change and spotting a golden retriever lying near the front desk. Or a cat perched on a window sill in your travel agency. These businesses are aiming to create a “pet-friendly” environment for employees and customers alike.

While the pet policies of these businesses don’t get as much attention in the media as those of airlines or restaurants, owners of these pet-friendly businesses should be aware of and manage the potential legal risks, specifically when it comes to serving people with allergies. Individuals with severe pet allergies can have intense reactions with itching around the face, breathing problems and rashes.

In Michigan, a landowner owes an invitee or customer a duty to exercise ordinary care and prudence to keep the premises reasonably safe, which typically includes a duty to warn or inspect. Possessors must warn a customer of dangers they know — or should know of — unless the dangers are open and obvious. Generally, the question is whether a person of average intelligence should have discovered the hazardous condition upon casual inspection.

The most likely claim against a pet-friendly business for injuries sustained from a pet would be negligence, specifically a failure to warn under premise liability. As with any negligence case, a plaintiff would have to prove the owner had a duty to the plaintiff and breached that duty. In this situation, duty would be defined as a duty to act with reasonable care based on how the relationship benefits the owner.

It is uncertain whether a court would rule a pet-friendly business to be an open and obvious danger or instead placed a duty on a business to warn customers.

However, if the business is one that typically does not cater to pet owners, then a plaintiff with severe allergies could argue that harmful pet allergens were not open and obvious considering that allergens are not apparent to the naked eye. This could be critical, seeing that airborne dog dander can remain in a room even after the animal has left.

Additionally, without any prior knowledge that a business allows animals, a plaintiff could argue that a customer would not reasonably expect to find an animal or animal dander in a nonanimal business when he or she enters the property.

What businesses should do

Currently, there isn’t any Michigan case law shedding light on this potential legal problem. However, looking to negligence law, we can speculate answers to help business owners stay on the safe side of this emerging issue:

Put up a warning sign in a visible area: This is the classic method to warn customers of a potential danger. It’s a simple way to satisfy the “duty” element in a plaintiff’s negligence action. The sign should mention that animal allergens remain in a space even after animals are no longer present. This would warn allergic customers they should not be surprised to find a pet in the business and understand that they could have an allergic reaction inside to the invisible allergens that remain after animals leave. If the business has a website, the same allergen statement should be visible online.

List the business as pet-friendly on social media: BringFido.com is an international directory of pet-friendly businesses and websites. Individuals can search on the main page for any city, and the site will generate a list of pet-friendly businesses there. This can act as additional evidence to satisfy the “duty” element in a negligence action.

Maintain a clean environment: Various methods can reduce animal allergens in a business to decrease potential for allergic reactions to animal dander. Look for air cleaners with high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters, which have been shown to reduce the amount of dander in the air. Also, try designating certain areas as “pet free” to reduce potential exposure to dander. Finally, installing laminate, tile or hardwood floors eases cleaning to remove traces of allergens.

Despite its positives, allowing employees to bring pets to an establishment can pose legal risks, including claims of injury by allergic customers. These claims can’t be avoided, but they can be minimized.

Kaitlin D. Sheets is an attorney at Warner Norcross + Judd LLP practicing in the Grand Rapids office. She can be reached at ksheets@wnj.com.

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