Atlanta Dog Bite Laws
The relationship between man and "man's best friend" is not always reliable, or predictable. As much as we may want to think of them as companions more than pets, dogs are still animals; under the right circumstances even the best-behaved dogs can bite or otherwise attack humans. This is especially the case where children are concerned: of roughly 5 million dog bite incidents that happen annually in the United States, about half of the victims are children, including the majority of bites resulting in serious injuries or deaths.
Many times the offending dog is one you will be familiar with: according to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, half of dog bites on children come from a neighbor's dog, and about one-third are bites inflicted by the family's own pet. In a two-year statistical sample (1997-98), three-quarters of reported fatal dog attacks happened to family members or guests on the owning family's property.
Every state has laws to address owner liability for a dog that bites. Some of these have their origin in common law, which is based on a body of court decisions, while other states have written statutes. Some states, including Georgia, have written laws that incorporate elements of common law, and are known as "mixed dog bite law" states. In this post, we take a closer look at Georgia's dog bite laws.
Four Ways a Dog Owner Can be Liable for Injuries the Dog Causes
Georgia recognizes the following legal grounds to establish owner liability for a personal injury his dog causes:
- Injuries caused by a dog the owner knew, or should have known possessed dangerous propensities.
- Injuries caused by the negligence of the dog owner.
- Injuries that trigger liability under premises liability law.
- Injuries caused by dangerous or potentially dangerous dogs.
The "Scienter" Question: Also Known As, "The One Bite Rule"
Georgia law starts with the presumption that domesticated animals are not inherently dangerous. As long as the animal does nothing to alert the owner to the existence of a dangerous characteristic, such as lunging at, scratching, chasing, or nipping at people, then the owner will generally not be liable for the first time that the animal harms someone. The rationale behind this "one free bite" rule is that an otherwise harmless animal can have what amounts to a one-off moment in which it is startled, frightened, provoked, or otherwise behaves uncharacteristically so as to causes harm.
To establish liability for a dog bite or other dog-caused injury, the injured plaintiff will need to show that the owner knew the dog had a dangerous propensity to inflict the kind of harm suffered. The "one bite" term is actually somewhat misleading, because threatening behavior short of biting can be enough to put the owner on notice of a dog's dangerous temperament: if the dog tries to bite someone but fails, that is as good as an actual bite for purposes of making the owner aware of its dangerous disposition.
In proving that the animal was of a dangerous disposition, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the prior threatening behavior was similar to the act that caused the injury, that it effectively predicted what would eventually happen. A dog that nips when someone attempts to pet it portends a dog that will bite; a large dog that jumps on people can lead to a dog that knocks someone down.
By a counter-example, if a dog owner keeps the dog leashed because he suspects that if it ran loose it would possibly hurt someone, but the dog had not exhibited any specific attempts to harm another person, this precautionary behavior would not necessarily rise to the level of knowledge ("scienter") that the dog had a propensity to bite or maul another person.
Similarly, the size or breed of a dog does not by itself impute knowledge of a dangerous propensity: just because the dog is a Pit Bull, German Shepherd, or Doberman, for example, does not establish that the owner should reasonably know that it has a dangerous propensity absent any threatening behaviors.
The one bite rule is based on a form of negligence on the part of the owner, in that if the owner knows or should reasonably know of the dog's dangerous propensity and does nothing to prevent the dog from harming someone, that is negligent conduct. But another way for a dog bite victim to establish the dog owner's liability can be through proving "ordinary" negligence apart from awareness of a dangerous temperament.
In Georgia, this kind of negligence was demonstrated by the Braeden Kelly case. In that case, the owners of a German Shepherd occasionally let the dog loose to play with their children, despite the existence of an Atlanta leash law. One day the dog went about 100 yards down the street where it encountered 5-year-old Braeden Kelly, whom it attacked causing severe head injuries. The plaintiff sued on a theory of owner negligence apart from a scienter-based cause of action and won in court.
Georgia premises liability law requires property owners and occupiers to keep others on their property, such as guests, customers, or people who are otherwise there lawfully, safe from dangerous conditions that the owner or occupier knows about or should reasonably be aware of. A dangerous dog can be a form of "dangerous condition" on the property for purposes of premises liability. Note, though, that similar to the scienter/one bite rule, the plaintiff must still be able to prove that the dog had a dangerous propensity for the dog to be a dangerous condition on the property.
The Georgia Dog Bite Statute
If a dog is dangerous and has already used up its "one free bite," then its owner can be held liable for injuries it causes to people if he exercises "careless management" of the animal. This law is subject to a couple of legal definitions:
- A "potentially dangerous dog" is one that has, without provocation, bitten a human being.
- A "dangerous dog" is one that has already inflicted an unprovoked severe injury (defined as an injury resulting in death, broken bones, or disfiguring lacerations that require cosmetic surgery or multiple sutures) on a person, or is a dog previously identified as "potentially dangerous" that again attacks or otherwise endangers the safety of another person.
Under the dog bite statute, the owner of a "vicious or dangerous animal" who, by careless management of the animal or by letting it "go at liberty" allows the animal to injure another can be liable to the injured person. A dog identified as "dangerous" or "potentially dangerous" can qualify as a vicious or dangerous animal under this law.
Careless management can take the form of failing to provide on the owner's property a "proper enclosure" for the potentially dangerous or dangerous dog, such as a securely locked pen, fence or other structure designed and built to keep the dog from escaping.
Allowing the dog to go at liberty usually means not having it on a leash. What is more, the dog bite statute provides its own "vicious propensity" definition: a dangerous animal subject to a local, county or consolidated government leash law that is not on a leash when the attack takes place is automatically considered to have a dangerous propensity. The owner does not need to have actual knowledge of the dog's vicious disposition, as with the scienter/one bite rule; constructive knowledge occurs just by disregarding the leash law.
What are Some Defenses to Dog Bite Liability?
Aside from proving that the dog did not cause the harm to the plaintiff, some possible partial or complete defenses to dog bite liability in Georgia are:
- The owner was not aware, nor could he be reasonably aware of the dog's dangerous propensity.
- The owner demonstrates that he exercised reasonable care in attempting to prevent the harm.
- The injured plaintiff provoked the dog.
- The owner was in compliance with applicable leash laws and other legal requirements for potentially dangerous or dangerous dogs.
- The plaintiff was a trespasser on the dog owner's property.
- The plaintiff knowingly assumed the risk of being bitten (for example, the plaintiff is a professional dog handler).
- The injured plaintiff was also comparatively negligent (Georgia law reduces the plaintiff's damages if he is up to 50% at fault, and if the plaintiff is 51% or more at fault then no recovery is possible).
- If the victim is a child, the child's parents were negligent in their failure to supervise the child (a variation of comparative negligence).
What are the Penalties for Dog Bite Liability?
A dog owner can be liable to the plaintiff for money damages. These include compensatory damages for things like medical expenses connected to treatment of injuries or property damage. Other damages claims might be for pain and suffering that the victim experiences as a result of the attack. In situations where the conduct of the dog owner was intentional or malicious, such as directing the dog's attack on the victim, punitive damages may also be in order.
Georgia law can also make a dog owner criminally liable for failing to comply with statutes covering potentially dangerous or dangerous dogs. For example, the owner's failure to keep a dangerous dog in a secure enclosure can be subject to misdemeanor liability, with fines ranging from $500 for the first or second conviction and $750 for three or more such convictions (these sums are $150 and $300, respectively, for owners of potentially dangerous dogs).
If a dangerous dog causes severe injury or death to a person off the owner's property (the law exempts owners of dangerous dogs from criminal liability if the attack takes place on the owner's property), and the owner was knowingly and willfully in violation of the laws governing dangerous dogs, then the owner can be found liable for a felony-level criminal violation. In this situation, fines can range from $5,000 to $10,000, a prison term of 1 to 10 years, or both.
If an owner has already been convicted of a violation of the statutes covering dangerous dogs and knowingly and willfully violates the statutes again, and another dog attack ensues off the owner's property, the penalty is a fine of $1,000 to $5,000 and a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years (note that the second attack does not need to lead to serious injury).
In either of the two situations above, the dangerous dog will also be confiscated by law enforcement, quarantined and destroyed.
What Should You Do if You Are the Victim of a Dog Attack?
The first thing you should do is to seek medical attention for your wounds.
If anyone witnessed the attack, you should gather information from that person sufficient to identify him or her as a potential witness.
Finally, you should seriously consider retaining an attorney who is familiar with Georgia's dog bite laws. Georgia's dog bite laws are among the more complicated in the United States, and it can be easy to make mistakes that could delay or even preclude your legal claims if you try to pursue them on your own.
Depending on the circumstances of the attack, the nature of your injuries, and other factors such as whether the dog was legally dangerous or potentially dangerous, a lawyer can help you to identify your possible damages and sources of money to pay for them (such as homeowner's or other insurance) and to anticipate and deal with the owner's possible defenses against your claims.