Articles Posted in Dog Bites

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Seven (Yes, 7) pit bulls escaped from their yard and attacked a female neighbor outside her home and another woman in the dog owner’s home off Windy Hill Road. The owner, of the 7 pit bulls had been cited six times between February 2018 and March of this year for the dogs roaming the neighborhood, injuring a chicken and biting another animal, according to citations and incident reports obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from Cobb County through an open records request.

Clearly, if the facts as reported by the AJC are true, the owner of the seven (Yes, 7) pit bulls is liable for all of the damage the pit bulls  have caused in attacking the innocent neighbors. The first inquiry in a case like this is: did the owner know or have reason to know that the dogs were dangerous. In this case, the interesting reported fact is: Cobb County Animal Services Division Director Shana Luke said the agency had no reports of the dogs biting people before the incident.  So, one of the interesting legal questions in this case is: Should the owner of the seven (Yes, 7) pit bulls have known that the dogs were dangerous since the owner had been cited numerous times for roaming the neighborhood, injuring a chicken and biting another animal, but not for biting a human being. The answer, in my opinion, is yes.

We at Katz Wright Fleming Dodson & Mildenhall have handled cases similar to this and recovered for our clients when the dog involved in the attack did not bite other people before but did have a history of vicious behavior toward other animals and a history of getting loose and causing problems in the neighborhood. Couple this with the clear violation of the local leash law (in this case Cobb County’s animal leash law) which states as follows:

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The Georgia Supreme Court narrowly construed a statute imposing liability for dogs with vicious propensities and held that it did not apply to a landlord who failed to keep the premises of a rental house in good repair. The landlord knew that the renters had dogs and failed to fix the latch to the back gate. The renters kept two pit bulls unattended in the back yard and closed the gate by tying a leash around the gate pole because the latch for the gate was broken, apparently for the majority of time that the pit bull owners were in the house.

As an initial matter, the law regarding liability of dog owners focuses on OCGA § 51-2-7 which states: 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 injury by his own act may be liable in damages to the person so injured. 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.

In the Tyner  case, In December of 2008, the pit bull owners began renting out the Stockbridge home. A few months later, the latch to a gate on the backyard fence was broken. The latch was never repaired, and the pit bull owners began securing the gate by tying a dog leash around it and putting weights and a cement block at the base of the gate.

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According to the CDC, approximately 4.7 million dog bite attacks occur in the United States each year, and 800,000 of those attacks result in medical care. The U.S. population is approximately 325.7 million people as of 2017. That means a dog bites 1 out of  every 70 people in America, and more troubling than that, dogs are attacking children at an increasingly high rate.

Most dog bites occur in or around the home or at public parks such as nature parks or dog parks. Why do dogs bite? With the rare exception, dogs bite because the are afraid. Most common situations which result in dog bites are:

  • Dogs bite as a reaction to a stressful situation.
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As a lawyer in Atlanta who has handled many cases involving dog attacks resulting in severe and permanent injuries in Lawrenceville and Gwinnett County, as recently reported, the following scenario is typical:

A Gwinnett resident on a walk after dinner attacked by two dogs and needing immediate surgery. A quick investigation turns up the fact that this attack is not isolated and, in fact, the client is one of three people seriously injured after being attacked by the dogs, who had gotten loose from a home  in Lawrenceville. After the attack, Gwinnett County Animal Welfare captured the dogs and cited their owners. The dogs were euthanized and tested negative for rabies.

The victim of the dog attack was walking home from a local park, minding his own business when the loose pack of dogs jumped on him and began ripping into his arms, legs and other body parts. The attack was  witnessed by others who stopped and began trying to pull the vicious dogs off the helpless victim. Other neighbors tried, in vain, to help the elderly man as he was being attacked by a number of pit bulls at the same time.

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Many arguments between dog owners and others start with the picking up of the dog feces. Where do they end? Well sometimes they end with a dog attack and serious injuries. In the City of Atlanta, dog owner have many duties when it comes to their dogs. One such duty is to clean up after them. The City code is as follows:
Sec. 18-9. – Removal of canine fecal matter.

(a) It shall be unlawful for any person owning, possessing, harboring or having care, charge, control or custody of any dog not to remove any feces left by that dog on any sidewalk, gutter, street, lot or other public area. Dog waste shall be immediately removed by placing said matter in a closed or sealed container and thereafter disposing of it in a trash receptacle, sanitary disposal unit or other closed or sealed refuse container.

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There are many different jurisdictions in the metropolitan Atlanta area and many of these have different codes or statutes which impute liability to dog owners when there is a dog attack that results in personal injuries. One thing is for sure though, there is no longer the “one bite rule” in Georgia, or to be more specific, a dog does not have to have bitten someone before for the owner of that dog to be liable for damages caused by the attack. For instance, the rule of law in Cobb County, holds dog owners to an even higher standard.  Pursuant to Cobb County Code of Ordinance, § 10-11, “It shall be unlawful for the owner of any animal to permit such animal to be out of his immediate control and restraint… .” 10-11 (2) (b) defines restraint when off the owner’s premises as “…all animals shall at a minimum be maintained on an appropriate chain, leash, or tie not exceeding six feet in length, and in the hands of a person who possesses the ability to restrain the animal.”

It follows that liability to the owner attaches where the dogs are leashed in Cobb County (and other municipalities in and around Atlanta that have similar leash laws) if the victim of the dog bite can prove:  (1) that the dog was vicious; or (2) that the dog is a dangerous animal; or (3) a violation of heel or leash laws. Cobb county defines vicious and dangerous differently but, for purposes of this analysis, either can be proven in order to prevail against the defendant dog owner.

In Steagald v. Eason, (300 Ga. 717, 2017) the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that liability could attach to the dog owner under O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7, even if the attack took place in the dog owner’s home or fenced in yard. Under O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7 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 injury by his own conduct my be liable for damages to the injured person. In coming to its conclusion in the Steagald case, the Supreme Court of Georgia first noted that the rule [for liability] “does not literally require a first bite.” It then went on to discuss how, to show the requisite knowledge of the dog’s propensity to bite, could be satisfied by a number of different incidences, not just from a previous bite. “If there is an incident or incidents which would put a prudent man on notice to anticipate the even which occurred” then the owner’s knowledge may be inferred. In doing so, the Supreme Court of Georgia made clear that, to the extent that the appellate court has ruled otherwise, they are overruled.

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Pit bull attacks continue to dominate the number of dog attack cases in Georgia, especially when it comes to fatal attacks on young children. Two pit bulls killed a 20-month-old boy at his grandmother’s house in Hart County, Georgia, and she is now faces criminal charges related to the attack, according to recent reports.

While it is rare that dog bite cases result in criminal charges beyond citations from animal control for failing to properly maintain control of the dog and allowing it to attack someone, civil actions are much more common, as this is the usual course of action to hold the dog owner liable for the damages inflicted by the dogs after an attack.

In addition to the leash laws related to the proper control of dogs that a Georgia homeowner owns or has in its custody of control, the Georgia Code of civil procedure provides as follows:

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With warm Georgia weather comes a rash of dog bite cases. This happens every year and this year is no different.

Georgia’s dog bite statute which is found at O.C.G.A § 51-2-7 provides:

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 injury by his own act may be liable in damages to the person so injured. 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. The foregoing sentence shall not apply to domesticated fowl including roosters with spurs. The foregoing sentence shall not apply to domesticated livestock.

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There are now almost 4.5 million dog bites in the U.S. each year and with the rise in dog bites is a corresponding rise in the payouts by liability insurers such as State Farm, Allstate and other large insurers who write homeowner’s insurance policies in the U.S.

Sadly, most of the attacks involve children and pit bulls, although there are other breeds that have a higher incidence of attacking such as the German Shepard, Chow, Akita, and Sharpei.

Most payouts are made to the injured dog bite victim from the dog owners insurer, and most times, the insurer is the insurance company who wrote the owner’s homeowner’s policy or (much less often) renter’s policy. Because of this, it is important that you determine the owner’s identity and residence as soon as you can, if you are bitten someone else’s dog.

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I have noticed a marked increase in declaratory judgment actions being filed by insurers of defendants in personal injury, premises liability, wrongful death and dog bite cases. The usual basis for the declaratory judgment action is that the insurer asserts in its pleadings that there is no insurance for the event that caused the injury, most often claiming that an exclusion in the policy applies. It has been my experience that most declaratory judgment actions are mere posturing by the defendant’s insurer and any response to a declaratory judgment actions should not concede any issues that are in contention. Below is a sample response to a declaratory judgment action. Similar responses have been filed in other cases. Obviously, every case is different and the following is solely as sample and should not be used for anything but educational purposes or for a new lawyer to familiarize herself with what a response might look like before drafting her own response to a motion for declaratory judgment.

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA