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Pitbull Attack Victims Face Hurdles in Georgia Courts

Every year thousands of people are injured by dog bites. Sadly, some of these injuries are fatal. According to DogBites.org, a nonprofit organization that tracks “dangerous dog breeds” in the United States, 42 people died following dog attacks last year. The organization also said 74 percent of all fatal dog attacks reported between 2005 and 2014 could be attributed to just two breeds – pitbulls and rottweilers.

Some state courts have taken notice of the pitbull’s propensity for attacking people. In 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals adopted “a strict liability standard in respect to the owning, harboring or control of pit bulls and cross-bred pit bulls in lieu of the traditional common law liability principles.” This means pitbull owners are presumed to have knowledge of their animal’s “dangerous” propensities.

Although a handful of Georgia localities restrict pitbulls, there is no statewide ban on owning such dogs. Despite the breed’s reported propensity for aggressive behavior, victims of pitbull attacks cannot recover damages from dog owners simply by pointing to statistics or actions by other state courts. Georgia law has very specific requirements when it comes to holding dog owners liable.

Steagald v. Eason

For example, the Georgia Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a dog bite victim attack. The dog in this case was a pitbull. The owner was an adult living with his parents. The owner and his ex-wife previously “rescued the dog from the side of the road.”

The owner’s mother reported the dog “snapped at her” the first time she went to feed him. The parents’ neighbor also said the dog “growled, barked, and snapped at him.” Six days later, the neighbor’s wife approached the dog, who immediately “jumped up, latched onto her arm, and started biting down.” It took three men to get the dog to release the victim’s arm. While attempting to exit her neighbor’s yard, the victim fell down and the pitbull attacked her a second time, grabbing her leg. The victim subsequently required extended medical care.

Despite this harrowing report, the Georgia courts ultimately rejected the victim’s lawsuit against her neighbors. As the Court of Appeals explained, Georgia law holds a dog owner is only liable for negligence if he “has knowledge that the dog has the propensity to do the particular act” that caused the victim’s injury. In other words, if the owner does not know the dog has a history of biting people, he is not responsible for the dog’s actions.

The victim here argued the pitbull’s prior aggressive behavior towards her husband and the owner’s mother six days before her attack should have put the owner “on notice.” The Court of Appeals disagreed. The judges said the pitbull’s earlier “snapping” was likely caused by the animal’s unfamiliarity with his new surroundings and “was not unusual dog behavior.” In any case, the judges said there was no evidence the pitbull ever committed the exact same type of attack at issue in this case—i.e., an “unprovoked attack on a stranger coming into the yard.”