If you are reading this page, let us say we are already sorry that you are dealing with this situation. Dogs are by and large America's favorite pets and they are wonderful companions for the most part. The problem lies with certain dog owners and with certain breeds. When you mix the wrong people with the wrong breeds, you get dog attacks.
Georgia law recognized a long time ago that animals, even beloved dogs can be unpredictable, to a degree. The law makes good sense; it basically requires that for a dog owner to be legally responsible that the owner had an idea that the dog had a propensity to bite people. If the dog always was aggressive towards people, then there is a duty on the owner to maintain tight control or even put the animal down, if it is dangerous. If you are dealing with a dog attack, then your key question is probably; do I have a valid case against the owner for the attack?
The short answer is, "yes" if:
- the dog is outside of a fence or off of the leash in a County or City that has a fencing and leash law; OR
- the dog has a provable history of aggressive behavior towards humans
Georgia does not hold that there is strict responsibility for dog attacks; the owner must either be breaking a law or be on actual notice that the dog is dangerous. In May 2012, the media covered the new Georgia dog statute but that has not changed the status of the civil law. OCGA 40-8-20 et seq.
The new law, called the Responsible Dog Owner Act, was aimed at increasing criminal penalties and requiring dog owners to get insurance AFTER the dog attacks someone. The focus is on known dangerous dogs, which in our view really does not alter the existing "one free bite" rule.
On the State level, there are no specific breeds like pit bulls, Rottweilers and Bull Mastiffs that are vicious. The law defines a vicious dog as one who has seriously injured a human, which is ridiculous.
The law offers nothing new to dog bite victims because it is unlikely the insurance requirements are going to be enforced. In our view, dog bites are always going to come down to witnesses in the neighborhood. If there is no leash law in the area where the attack occurred, then we investigate by interviewing neighbors and reviewing public records to see if there are prior incidents where the animal showed aggression toward humans.
A second aspect of these cases involves finding insurance to cover the injury. In a recent suit that we filed, the victim broke his ankle while fleeing from an unrestrained pit bull. The homeowner denied that she had insurance coverage stating that she did not pay her premium. We filed suit and soon learned that the insurance was in place and the homeowner had been mistaken about the date of the insurance cancellation. It is important that your lawyer be prepared to file suit to gain discovery powers that uncover facts that are easily missed.
Why is insurance so important? Because a lot of renters out there own dangerous dogs and have no insurance to pay for medical bills. You can always file suit, but if the dog owner has no assets to pay the judgment, it can be worthless.
Recent Appellate Case Law Decisions Involving Dog Bite Cases
Although there are many costs one considers when he or she decides to purchase a pet, such as food, medicine, or grooming, one expense that’s often overlooked is possible legal fees. Admittedly, most pet owners will not be brought into court for an issue involving a pet. However, animal injury suits are far from uncommon. In fact, among the various negligence cases handled by the Georgia Court of Appeals in its previous session were several involving animal-related injuries, including Askew v. Rogers
, an archetypal case involving a pit bull attack.The pit bull at issue in this case was the pet of the defendant in this action, who resides in the same neighborhood as the plaintiff.
The defendant testified that she had removed the pit bull from the cage at the back of her property and later returned the dog to the cage before returning inside her home. As she passed the defendant’s home while on her evening walk, the plaintiff testified that she saw the defendant’s dog outside its cage. The plaintiff stated that she wasn’t afraid initially, since he had always seen the dog on its leash. However, the plaintiff then noticed that the pit bull was unleashed and was running towards her. The plaintiff began to run and called out to the defendant, who was coming out of her house to get the dog. Before the defendant could retrieve the dog, however, the dog caught up to the plaintiff at the end of the defendant’s driveway. The dog jumped on the plaintiff, put its paws on her chest, and nipped on her right thigh. The dog failed to obey the defendant's orders to stop. Eventually, the defendant was able to grab hold of the dog, but as the plaintiff was trying to flee from the scene of the incident, she fell on the defendant’s driveway and injured her wrist.
In her deposition, the defendant testified that the dog had never escaped from its cage and that she was unsure how it may have escaped on that occasion. However, the defendant did testify that she might have inadvertently left the cage unlocked. Following this incident, Animal Control issued a citation for violation of the applicable county Animal Control Ordinance. In an affidavit, the Animal Control officer further stated that this was not the first time the defendant’s dog had been allowed to roam free and that, in fact, a few months earlier the dog had run out in front of the officer’s vehicle, which caused her to strike it. Following this event, the plaintiff brought a negligence suit against the defendant.
Following discovery, the plaintiff made a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of negligence, which argued that by failing to manage her dog in conformity to the standards outlined in O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7
the defendant was negligent as a matter of law. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion, and the defendant brought this appeal. On appeal, the defendant argued that issues of material fact for a jury to resolve existed as to whether the defendant’s conduct contravened O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7
, and accordingly, granting summary judgment was in error. In its decision, the Georgia Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff, reversed the grant of partial summary judgment, and remanded the case for trial on the issues of both liability and damages.
The statute at issue in this case, O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7
, provides in pertinent part, “[a] person who owns or keeps a vicious or dangerous animal of any kind and who, by careless management or by allowing the animal to go at liberty, causes injury to another person who does not provoke the […] may be liable in damages to the person so injured.” The statute further provides, “[i]n proving vicious propensity, it shall be sufficient to show that the animal was required to be a […] on a leash by an ordinance […] and the […] animal was at the time of the occurrence not […] on a leash.” Id. Since a local ordinance required that the dog be on a leash, the plaintiff argued that the defendant’s failure to leash the dog amounted to a violation of O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7
However, the court noted that even if one assumes the dog was vicious, issues of material fact exist with regard to contravention of other parts of the statute.Specifically, the plaintiff failed to establish, as a matter of law, that the defendant had carelessly managed the pit bull or allowed the pit bull to go at liberty. The defendant’s testimony that she might have accidentally left the dog cage is insufficient to conclusively demonstrate that she negligently managed the dog or consciously let the dog go at liberty. Indeed, this testimony does not foreclose the possibility that the defendant may have actually locked the cage and the dog unpredictably escaped.
A motion for summary judgment cannot be based on “an inference […] which is too uncertain or speculative or which raises merely a conjecture or possibility." Harper v. Robinson, 263 Ga. App. 727, 728 (1) (589 SE2d 295) (2003). Thus, it is for a jury to assess the credibility of the witnesses and to determine whether the defendant’s conduct amounted to careless management or letting the dog go at liberty.This is a good example of a plaintiff going on the offensive using the statute. Normally, it is the defense attorney is filing a motion for summary judgment, trying to get the case kicked out.
Folks who have been injured should always deeply consider seeking the aid of experienced counsel. The Atlanta negligence attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have particularized experience with animal injury
cases, and they are prepared to answer the questions you may have about a possible claim. Feel free to contact us if you are interested in a free case consultation.
Feel free to call and ask questions about your dog bites case. You can reach Mr. Simon at 404-259-7635 or online by clicking here.