Has your child been attacked and bitten by a vicious dog?
If so, what are your legal options? How can you get compensation for your child’s injury? How do you know if you need to hire an attorney?
In this post, I hope to offer help by providing an overview of Georgia law on the legal accountability (liability) of “owners and keepers” of “vicious” dogs. Throughout this overview, it should become clear what your legal options are and whether or not you need an attorney for your case.
Historically the rule in Georgia for determining whether an owner or keeper of a vicious dog was legally responsible for injuries caused by their animal was the “first bite rule.” Under that rule an owner or keeper of a vicious dog could be held liable for their dog’s behavior only if the animal had previously exhibited a propensity to bite or attack before the incident in question and the owner/keeper knew of the dog’s vicious propensity. This rule was understood by many as giving dog owners “one free bite” before they were responsible for injuries caused by their animal.
However, in some instances, a dog’s past vicious activity does not count as a “first bite.” If the bite or attack was provoked by teasing or other actions that incited the dog, the owner or keeper cannot be held accountable for their animal’s actions. Young children often do not know how to act around animals and may provoke them, but according to historic Georgia law, dog owners are not responsible for provoked actions of an otherwise friendly animal. It is very important that children be taught about how to avoid stirring up animals. These two videos are very helpful in teaching children about dog bite prevention:
Interestingly, if a dog is part wolf or other wild animal, the “one bite rule” does not apply. The owner or keeper can be kept strictly liable – responsible regardless of the animal’s past history. Another interesting tidbit is that, since a cat is a domestic animal, cat bites or attacks are governed by the same set of rules as a dog.
But back to regular dogs. Georgia’s traditional “first bite rule” made it quite difficult for victims of a dog bite to recover compensation for their injuries. It was often impossible to prove that the owner/keeper had actual previous knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensity. It also was often difficult to find information about previous bites and attacks. As a result of the strictness of the “first bite rule,” many injury victims went without compensation.
Happily, Georgia dog bite law has grown more favorable to injury victims over the last few decades.
The traditional “one free bite” Georgia rule is still on the law books (O.C.G.A. Section 51-2-7), but it has been relaxed somewhat. Recent court decisions, while upholding the principles behind the traditional Georgia rule, have moved toward softening the application of it. Duty is now placed on the dog owner/keeper to take “reasonable steps” to protect the public if they are aware of any previous vicious tendency in their dog, even if it has never actually bitten in the past. These recent court decisions have focused less on requiring the injury victim to prove a prior similar incident or attack and more on the owner’s knowledge of the dog’s aggressive temperament.
It became even easier for victims of a dog attack to get compensation in 1985, when the Georgia General Assembly (our state legislature) amended the dog liability statute to include the following provision:
“In proving vicious propensity, it shall be sufficient to show that the animal was required to be at heel or on a leash by an ordinance of a city, county, or consolidated government, and the said animal was at the time of the occurrence not at heel or on a leash.”
This 1985 amendment relaxed the traditional Georgia rule that the owner or keeper of a dog had to have knowledge of the dog’s previous tendency to be vicious. It did not do away with that requirement altogether, but it did carve out an exception to it. Because of this amendment, if a person or their child is injured by a dog and they can prove that the dog’s owner or keeper committed a violation of an applicable “leash law,” then the “one bite rule” does not apply. It is enough to prove that the owner was violating a “leash law” at the time of the bite or attack – no proof of knowledge about the dog’s previous vicious propensity is needed. Subsequent appellate cases have interpreted the 1985 amendment to apply not only to “leash laws” but also restrictive ordinances that require an owner to keep a dog confined to the property.
The bottom line? Because of the 1985 amendment, if your child has been bitten by a dog and you suspect the owner/ keeper of that dog was violating a “leash law” or local restrictive ordinance, you may have a great chance of getting compensation for your child’s injury. An attorney can help you research your local leash laws and/or local restrictive ordinances to see if (a) a “leash law” was in effect and (b) what the law requires owners/keepers of dogs to do.
Keep in mind that some parks have rules that require owners/keepers to keep dogs (and cats!) on a leash. Stone Mountain Park, for instance, requires that all dogs and cats be kept on a leash no shorter than 6 feet. Also, according to the legal theory of “negligent undertaking,” if the dog owner/keeper voluntarily agrees to restrain their dog but then fails to do so properly, resulting in an injury, the owner can be held responsible. So even if the city or county in which your child was injured does not have a leash law, there may be other ways to establish that the owner/keeper had a duty to keep their animal on a leash.
Dog bite cases are very fact-specific – their outcome depends heavily on the specific facts surrounding the injury. Georgia’s dog liability statute and the cases that interpret it can be difficult to apply to a specific case with its unique details, but an attorney can help you navigate these rocky legal waters.
I hope the information in this post has been helpful to you. If you have questions, I would love to talk. You can contact me directly at Six-Seven-Eight 358-2564 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Attorney Pete Pearson practices personal injury law in Atlanta, Georgia and has a special interest in helping families of injured children. He is a father to nine and lives with his wife and children in Newborn, Georgia. His office is located in Conyers, Georgia.