Enzo, a pit bull, was euthanized after it bit off a woman’s ear in 2018. (Contributed photo)

Enzo, a pit bull, was euthanized after it bit off a woman’s ear in 2018. (Contributed photo)

Landlords not liable for Arlington dog attack on missionary

A Jehovah’s Witness missionary lost an appeal to the state Supreme Court after a tenant’s pit bull mauled her in 2018.

ARLINGTON — The missionary was standing in a driveway across from the Arlington cemetery, talking about Biblical scripture, when a tenant’s pit bull broke free through a loose section of fence.

The dog, Enzo, charged Maria Saralegui Blanco, 78, then mauled her, chewed off her ear and bit three other people who tried to stop him on May 5, 2018.

Saralegui Blanco filed a personal injury lawsuit months later in Snohomish County Superior Court. She claimed the landlords “knew or had reason to know that the subject pit bull was a dangerous condition of the land,” and that the fence was “dangerously inadequate” to contain the pit bull.

The case reached the state Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision in late April, justices rejected the argument that the landlords were responsible for injuries caused by the tenant’s dog.

“While this dog caused the injury, this case is not so much about the dog, but about the fence and whether the landlord had a duty to repair a dangerous condition on the land to protect the public, including Ms. Blanco,” the plaintiff’s attorney, Derek Moore, of Bishop Legal, told the court in his oral argument Feb. 16.

The tenant told his landlords in 2016 that he had a new puppy. He disclosed the breed and put in a fence in the yard. The landlords consented to the enclosure being built but did not inspect it, according to the state Supreme Court.

Saralegui Blanco, a door-to-door missionary with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, had gone to the house about five times before in the 6500 block of 204th Street NE. She would talk to the tenant outside, on the porch or in the yard. Her group was invited to visit each Tuesday. Saralegui Blanco later claimed that each time, the dog would jump and bark behind the fence — described by her attorney as “rotten” with “chewed up board.”

The landlords’ attorney countered that the dog “never exhibited vicious or aggressive behavior, nor were any complaints received from any neighbors about the dog.”

At least one of the landlords happened to be a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, too.

On the day of the attack, Saralegui Blanco and three others from her church carpooled in a pickup. One of the tenants came outside to greet them. The pit bull barked from the fenced yard as the tenant walked past.

A pit bull broke through a section of dilapidated fence in an Arlington yard and mauled a group of missionaries in 2018. (Contributed photo)

A pit bull broke through a section of dilapidated fence in an Arlington yard and mauled a group of missionaries in 2018. (Contributed photo)

The group discussed the Bible in the driveway for about 10 minutes. As the conversation ended, the dog broke free. Both sides agreed the attack was unprovoked.

“The pit bull knocked (Saralegui Blanco) to the ground, bit off much of her face, and ate her ear,” Moore wrote in a petition for review filed with the Supreme Court. “The fence from which the pit bull had escaped was weathered, chewed up, and was in poor condition, and had been that way for at least a year.”

The missionaries fought to pry the dog off of Saralegui Blanco, but could not. Two relatives of the dog’s owner ran out of the home to help. The group used a roughly 4-inch diameter tree branch to strike the pit bull, to try to stop the biting. The dog was beaten back, but kept mauling in at least three separate attacks. Saralegui Blanco lost a large amount of blood before she escaped and took shelter in the truck. An aid crew rushed her to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.

A second missionary, a 40-year-old woman, was also bitten. A man, 31, and a woman, 63, from the home were attacked, too. Ambulances took those three to Cascade Valley Hospital in Arlington. The two other missionaries weren’t hurt.

The dog’s owner gave up Enzo to Arlington police, and without prompting he asked officers to euthanize the dog.

Saralegui Blanco sued in September 2018. She alleged the tenants and their landlords were negligent and liable for her injuries. Her attorney, Moore, argued the attack could have been prevented if the landlords — as well as the tenants — had taken better care to fix the dilapidated fence.

A Snohomish County Superior Court judge dismissed the claims against the landlords on summary judgment. Saralegui Blanco appealed her claims against the landlords to the state Supreme Court. Justices agreed to review her case, even though the claims against the tenants were still pending.

The state Supreme Court upheld the dismissal. In the high court’s opinion, Associate Chief Justice Charles W. Johnson noted the fence had been built by the tenant after the move-in date. Citing precedent set in a 1994 case in which a Bothell woman was bitten by a tenant’s 500-pound Bengal tiger, the court found it wasn’t the landlords’ responsibility to oversee upkeep of the fence.

“We recognized that generally, landlords are not responsible for conditions on the land that are created by the tenant after the property has been leased,” Johnson wrote in the opinion.

Saralegui Blanco’s case is expected to be remanded to Snohomish County Superior Court for trial on the remaining claims against the dog owners, Moore said this week.

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; edennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen

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