In a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision (November 3, 2017), the court ruled that a dog's owner was not necessarily liable for injuries caused when her dog bit a passerby during a walk in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. The plaintiff, who was working in the park that day, was walking by when the dog suddenly lunged and bit him. The animal's owner had the dog on a leash, and was holding onto it, but was unable to stop the dog from lunging. The owner was cited for violation of an Atlanta ordinance providing that a dog owner is required to have the animal securely on a leash no more than six-feet long and under the control of a competent person.
To make a claim for injuries arising from a dog bite in Georgia, the Georgia Code, OCGA § 51-2-7, requires that the claimant show a "vicious propensity." To prove this, a claimant can introduce evidence that the dog had a history of aggression or at least one prior bite, giving rise to what is commonly known as the "one-bite rule." Without that sort of evidence, the plaintiff may also be able to prove fault by showing violation of a local ordinance requiring the animal to be on a leash. In this case, the owner apparently admitted violating the local leash law ordinance, and therefore the claimant filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue of fault, which was granted by the Fulton County trial court.
The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, and found that a jury was required to determine liability, as well as damages. In doing so, the appellate court determined that, despite the apparent admission to violating the leash law, there was some evidence that the owner was competent, and that despite the owner's admission to violation of the ordinance, a jury must decide the issue. There did not appear to be any argument that the dog had a vicious propensity aside from the claim regarding the local ordinance violation.
The decision of the Court of Appeals means that the case is required to be determined by a jury regarding both fault of the owner as well as damages sustained by the jury. However, the plaintiff has filed a notice of intent to seek a writ of certiorari to have the Georgia Supreme Court consider the issue.
This issue frequently arises. In a recent case in Fulton County State Court, John Hadden successfully argued that the City of Atlanta Ordinance at issue in the Myers case required that a jury decide the question of liability after the attorney for a dog owner claimed that the case should be dismissed on summary judgment. The dog at issue had escaped from its leash despite being restrained by a collar and leash just before escaping and knocking our client to the sidewalk, resulting in serious injuries. The court found that, based on the evidence, the injured party had produced sufficient evidence from which the jury could find that the defendant had not properly restrained the animal as required by the ordinance.