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.
On Oct. 24, 2013, the two pit bulls were left unattended in the backyard and the broken gate was kept closed with a leash. But the pit bulls later escaped and attacked the two dogs being walked by a neighbor a few blocks away. One of the neighbors dogs fled. But when she tried to defend her other dog, the pit bulls knocked her to the ground and began mauling her.
Another neighbor called 911 and a police officer who arrived at the scene shot and killed both pit bulls. The dog bite victim was airlifted from the scene and taken to Atlanta Medical Center. Her face was disfigured from the attack and she underwent several surgeries, racking up more than $140,000 in medical bills, according to court records.
In order to overrule the appellate court and limit liability for the dog attack against the landlord, the Georgia Supreme Court focused on OCGA § 51-2-7 which states that “[i]n 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 [that] the said animal was at the time of the occurrence was not at heel or on a leash.” The appellate court had noted that the dog bite victim’s complaint alleged that the pit bulls were “running at large in the neighborhood unrestrained” in violation of Henry County ordinances, and concluded that “the rule requiring evidence that the dog owners and the landlord were aware of the dogs’ vicious propensities is not implicated here.” See also Oertel, 239 Ga. App. at 150 (“If an animal is running at large in violation of a local ordinance when it bites someone, the owner’s knowledge of its propensity to bite is immaterial.”) (emphasis supplied)
Next, the Supreme Court of Georgia relied on OCGA § 44-7-14, which provides: Having fully parted with possession and the right of possession, the landlord is not responsible to third persons for damages resulting from the negligence or illegal use of the premises by the tenant; provided, however, the landlord is responsible for damages arising from defective construction or for damages arising from the failure to keep the premises in repair.
Finally, the Court determined that the plaintiffs in the underlying case failed to establish that the landlord knew or should have known of the vicious propensities of the two pit bulls who escaped from the yard due to the faulty gate latch, and therefore, was not liable under the laws of Georgia for the attack.
For almost 25 years, Attorney Robert J. Fleming has been handling wrongful death cases, personal injury, and vicious dog attack lawsuits for individuals and families who have been injured or died as a result of the negligence of others in and around the Atlanta, Georgia area, including Alpharetta, Brookhaven, Chamblee, College Park, Duluth, Decatur, Doraville, Hapeville, Johns Creek, Jonesboro, Lawrenceville, Norcross, Peachtree City, Riverdale, Roswell, Sandy Springs, Stone Mountain, and Smyrna. If you or a family member has been seriously injured or died as a result of a vicious dog attack and would like quality legal representation or if you would just like to consult about a potential case, contact Robert J. Fleming directly on (404) 525-5150 or contact us online.