As #ShoppingWithDogs hashtag continues to make regular appearances on Instagram, alongside images of happy dogs rolling along in shopping carts, furniture retailers may feel they’re missing out if they don’t jump on the “pet-friendly” bandwagon. Those who do would be in good company; beyond the not-surprising entries into the dog-welcoming business clubs, such as pet stores and patio restaurants, even more upscale retailers like Macy’s and Nordstrom now allow canine companions.
While furniture retailers who maintain a “no dogs allowed” policy may risk alienating a few customers, explicitly declaring your business “pet-friendly” also comes with its own share of risks. The likelihood of in-store mishaps increases – from puddles on the floor to dog bites to pet hair on that white sofa. But, surprisingly, it’s those little puddles that may carry the biggest liability risk for businesses.
As unpleasant and harmful as they are for victims, potential dog-bite incidents on business premises do not pose significant liability risk. Most states have “strict liability” laws for owners of dogs that bite, which means the owner is automatically responsible for damages. Victims need not prove any negligence by the dog owner. The next-most-common statute is often referred to as “one bite,” which means a dog owner is not strictly liable for the dog’s first bite. In “one-free-bite” jurisdictions, dog owners are held strictly liable for subsequent bites.
In either case, whether an establishment has a “no dogs allowed” or “dogs are welcome” policy, the business owners are not strictly liable for dogs biting on their premises if they don’t own or control the dog. Merely allowing a dog on the premises is not enough to establish strict liability under dog-bite statutes. Therefore, the only way dog-bite victims may recover damages against businesses and/or their owners is to establish some negligence theory against them, such as proof that the business establishment knew or should have known that the dog was dangerous – if it had bitten another patron on a prior occasion, for example. So, by allowing dogs, businesses have little to lose, as far as bites go – unless, of course, the store owners bring their own dogs into the business, in which case the store owners are strictly liable for their dogs’ bites.
It’s only if a dog has an accident on the floor that things get sticky for a business, especially if someone is injured. Slippery floors present significant risk of slip-and-fall incidents for any business. While consumers expect spills on floors in markets or restaurants, which are required to regularly inspect the premises to eliminate dangerous conditions on their floors, reasonable shoppers don’t expect liquids or slippery solids on a furniture showroom floor.
That means if your store allows dogs inside, you need to heighten inspection protocols to make sure dog accidents are cleaned up as soon as possible so shoppers are not unreasonably exposed to risk of injuries from slip-and-fall incidents. When you invite dogs in, you must expect that some will have accidents on the floor. Consequently, you have a duty to maintain safe premises by scheduling regular inspections and, if necessary, clean-ups.
Insufficient inspections might expose a business to liability in a slip-and-fall case. Victims can successfully hold the owner responsible if they can establish notice – that the business knew about a dangerous condition or should have had a system in place to discover it.
Unless there is a clear marketing advantage, it may not be in your best interest to advertise that pets are welcome, because doing so means being held to a higher standard of safety and assuming an obligation to put strict inspection protocols in place. Still, there’s no reason to feel badly about saying no to Fido. Unless you’re willing to let them sleep on a loveseat, dogs probably get a lot more out of a trip to the dog park than they do from a trip to your store.