Those injured by dog bites or attacks, or by other animals, may be able to recover damages against the owner of the animal if the victim can prove that the owner didn't properly take care to control the animal. As with other personal injury cases, Georgia law allows recovery for medical expenses, lost wages or income, pain and suffering, and sometimes punitive damages if the owner acted recklessly or intentionally in allowing the injury to happen.
Dog Attacks and Bites
Specific rules govern different types of cases. For dog bites and attacks, the Official Code of Georgia, Annotated (O.C.G.A.) sets out the applicable standard, and decisions of the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have further clarified when a dog owner may be liable for injuries caused by their animal. O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7 provides that:
“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.”
Based on this statutory language, there are a couple of ways that a dog owner can face liability.
First, if the animal has previously attacked someone, or even another animal, this fact may be sufficient to show that the animal has a “vicious propensity” and permit recovery at trial. Many cases involving dog bites and attacks involve investigation of any prior incidents or attacks and a careful study of the dog's history. Due to this law, it is sometimes said that Georgia has a “one bite” rule, meaning that if an animal has never attacked or bitten someone, the owner of the dog will not be liable. Once the owner has notice or knowledge that the animal may attack, however, he or she may be liable for future attacks.
The “one bite” rule can often be overcome, however, if the owner was in violation of a government ordinance at the time of the bite or attack. In Atlanta, for example, a city ordinance states that:
“It shall be unlawful for the owner, custodian or harborer of any dog to allow or permit such dog to leave the premises of the owner or other person having custody of the dog unless such dog is securely under leash; said leash being not more than six-feet long, and under the control of a competent person.”
(Atlanta Code of Ordinances, Section 18-124 – Running at large). Therefore, regardless of the dog's history, its owner may be liable if the dog is not properly restrained as established in the local ordinance. Similar ordinances exist in many other, but not all, jurisdictions, so the possibility of recovering from injuries based on this argument depends on the local laws.
Other Animals (Cows, Goats, Horses, and Other Livestock)
Dogs are not the only animals that can cause injuries. Large livestock (cows, goats, horses, etc.) may cause significant injuries, including in those cases where they wander into the roadway and are hit by passing motorists. Another Georgia statute offers guidance in these cases. O.C.G.A. § 4-3-3 states that:
“No owner shall permit livestock to run at large on or to stray upon the public roads of this state or any property not belonging to the owner of the livestock, except by permission of the owner of such property.”
Interpreting this section of the Official Code of Georgia, the Georgia Court of Appeals has noted that a where an animal is found on a public road, or somewhere else where the animal is not supposed to be, an inference arises that the owner was negligent and at fault for any harm that may occur. Porier v. Spivey, 97 Ga. App. 209, 211-12 (1958). The owner of the animal is then required to show the court that he or she did, in fact, take proper steps to keep the animal properly restrained or in a confined area, in which case the claimant must point to other evidence to show that the owner did something wrong. Prior escapes, for example, may be sufficient evidence to show that the owner is liable to the injured person. Ultimately, if the case does not resolve beforehand, the question must be resolved at trial.
Cases involving injuries caused by animals are often very fact-intensive and require careful analysis of the circumstances and law involved. Although every case is different, we have successfully handled a number of cases of these types.