Dog Bites: A Crash Course on Potential Legal Liability

Dog BitesA dog bite or an attack can be devastating.  Ranging from children to adults, dog bites/attacks can result in serious injury, permanent scarring, disfigurement, or even death.  Consequently, a dog bite can raise multiple theories of liability.

For a dog owner to be held liable for a dog bite or attack, the injured party must prove the dog owner knew the dog had a vicious propensity or was not properly restrained in violation of a local leash law.  O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7.

Vicious propensity is proven by demonstrating the dog’s history of aggressiveness and that the owner was on notice of such aggressiveness.  Steagald v. Eason, 300 Ga. 717, 797 S.E.2d 838 (2017).  Evidence that the dog has engaged in aggressive behavior in the past, such as snapping at people, can demonstrate a dog’s viciousness.  Steagald v. Eason, 300 Ga. 717, 797 S.E.2d 838 (2017).

The dog’s viciousness, however, is only one piece of the puzzle.  The key to demonstrating a dog owner’s liability is by showing the owner’s knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensity.  Durham v. Mooney, 234 Ga. App. 772, 507 S.E.2d 877 (1998).  An injured party must establish that the dog owner had superior knowledge, in that the dog owner knew or should have known of the dog’s viciousness.  Custer v. Coward, 293 Ga. App. 316, 667 S.E.2d 135 (2008).

A dog’s prior behavior, including prior incidents, can demonstrate that the dog owner was on notice.  Torrance v. Brennan, 209 Ga. App. 65, 432 S.E.2d 658 (1993).   An owner’s knowledge can also be established by reviewing vet records, doggie daycare records, boarding recordings, local animal control office records or speaking with neighbors or others who have interacted with the dog on previous occasions. If a pattern of aggressiveness can be established, the injured party may be entitled to punitive damages if it can be shown that the owner failed to take precautions to restrain their vicious dog. Weintsein v. Holmes, 344 Ga. App. 391, 810 S.E.2d 320 (2018).

It was once believed that an owner’s knowledge of a dog’s vicious propensity was irrelevant if the dog was running at large in violation of a local leash law.  Cowan v. Carillo, 331 Ga. App. 387, 771 S.E.2d 86 (2015) (disapproved of).  The Georgia Supreme Court, however, recently disapproved of this reasoning.  See S&S Towing & Recovery, Ltd. v. Charnota, 844 S.E.2d 730 (Ga. June 16, 2020).  In S&S Towing, the Georgia Supreme Court determined that violation of a leash law as provided for in O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7 does not in and of itself displace the common law requirement that the plaintiff must prove the dog’s owner knowledge.  Rather, a plaintiff seeking to recover under O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7 must still prove scienter by either showing the dog owner knew of the dog’s vicious propensity or that the dog owner knew that the animal was unrestrained in violation of a leash law at the time of injury.  S&S Towing & Recovery, Ltd. v. Charnota, 844 S.E.2d 730 (Ga. June 16, 2020).

Leash laws are enacted for a multitude of reasons and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Typically, leash laws require dogs to be on leashes in public or require a homeowner to secure a dog on the homeowner’s property (e.g., on a leash or in an enclosed area). Ordinances can require different duties of restraint depending on where the attack occurred.  For example, the ordinance may require a dog be on a leash and in the presence of its owner at all time when on public property but not have the same requirements when the dog is on private property.  Where the attack occurred can determine what insurance coverage is triggered, namely homeowners, renters or even business insurance.  Make sure to review local county or city ordinances where the attack occurred to know what was required for a dog owner and request a certified copy of the ordinance.

Dog bite or attack cases can be complicated, requiring specific evidence and an understanding of Georgia law.  Accordingly, it is important that you choose an experienced firm to represent you if you or one of your loved ones was bitten or attacked by a dog. Contact the attorneys at Finch McCranie to set up your free consultation.

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