In Georgia, a dog owner can be held liable for an injury caused by his or her animal, provided the victim can demonstrate “the dog had the propensity to do the act that caused the injury and, if so … the owner had knowledge of that propensity.” This propensity test requires more than proof a dog exhibits generally “aggressive or menacing” behavior. Rather, as the Georgia Court of Appeals explained in a 1985 decision, “there should be an incident which would put a prudent man on notice to anticipate the event which occurred.”
Green v. Wilson
Recently, the judges on the Court of Appeals’ sparred over how narrowly to construe this “notice” requirement. The victim in this case worked as a house cleaner. The defendants owned a home cleaned by the victim and her co-workers. The homeowners also owned a border collie. According to the victim, it was normal procedure for her and the other house cleaners to “wait outside” until the owner locked the collie in a separate room. She testified the dog routinely “lunged, barked, and growled at the housecleaners.”
One day, the victim arrived at the defendant’s home to discover the dog had not been locked away, but rather was running freely in the front yard. The dog leaped over the fence and ran towards the victim. The victim “quickly jumped inside the van and shut the door as [the dog] barked, growled, and jumped against the van door.” During her escape, the victim “struck her arm against the van, sustaining an injury that required surgery.”
The victim later sued the homeowners for negligence. A trial judge granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding since there was no evidence the dog had ever chased anyone before, the homeowners were not “on notice.” The victim appealed.
In a July 16 decision, the Court of Appeals, by a vote of 4-3, reversed the trial court’s summary judgment and returned the case for trial. Judge Christopher J. McFadden, writing for the majority, said while the dog may not have previously chased anyone, the victim did present evidence of one prior incident where the dog “lunged at the housecleaners” as the owner held the animal back. Judge McFadden said there was “no meaningful distinction between this behavior and what happened on the day [the victim] was injured.” At the very least, there was a disputed question of fact as to whether a “prudent person” would realize the dog might chase someone if left unrestrained.
Judge Stephen Louis A. Dillard disagreed. Writing for himself and the other two dissenting judges, he argued the defendants could not be held responsible unless the victim provided evidence of “a prior incident of the same type as the incident at issue.” Judge Dillard said the victim and her co-workers admitted the dog had not chased them prior to this incident, and at best the animal’s behavior was “aggressive or menacing,” which falls below the standard for negligence required in Georgia.
It should be noted, however, the majority’s decision did not establish the defendants’ negligence. The victim will now simply have an opportunity to present her arguments to a jury, which may still ultimately determine the owners were not responsible.