Dog bites and animal attacks are scary experiences that can result in significant physical and mental injuries. Owners who fail to take responsibility for dangerous animals may be held liable in court. But victims may have difficulty recovering damages if they voluntarily assumed risk or had “equal knowledge” of the danger posed by a particular animal.
Gilreath v. Smith
Recently the Georgia Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit brought by a woman injured in a rooster attack. The court upheld a lower court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the rooster’s owner. The critical issue was the level of prior warning the victim received.
The plaintiff was actually a professional pet sitter. Although she had no experience sitting for chickens, the victim had worked with farm animals, primarily caring for horses. The defendants hired the plaintiff on multiple occasions to care for animals on their farm, which included dogs and chickens.
The defendants also kept a rooster in an outside coop. There were warning signs on the coop indicating the rooster was dangerous. There was also at least one in which the rooster attacked the mother of one of the defendants.
The defendants never informed the plaintiff of this attack, but they did caution her in dealing with the rooster. Specifically, one defendant told the plaintiff to simply throw food into the rooster’s cage because it “will attack” otherwise. However, on the day in question, the defendant also asked the plaintiff to retrieve eggs from the chicken coop, which required opening the door and exposing herself to the rooster.
Sure enough, the rooster attacked the plaintiff. The animal “charged” at her, according to court testimony, and started pecking at her leg. This created deep wounds that subsequently became infected and required extensive medical care. The plaintiff then sued the defendants for negligence, alleging they failed to comply with state and local laws governing dangerous animals.
But as noted above, the courts rejected the lawsuit. The Court of Appeals explained the defendants were not liable, as a matter of law, because the plaintiff “assumed the risk of injury” when she accepted the pet-sitting job. Assumption of risk means a person has knowledge of a danger or hazard and chooses to proceed anyway.
Here, the plaintiff testified she could have turned down the sitting job after the defendants warned her about their rooster, but she did not. The plaintiff argued she would not have accepted the job if the defendants had told them the rooster attacked the mother, but the Court said that was irrelevant. The defendants’ other warnings were sufficient for them to escape liability. Nor was any evidence presented indicating the defendants had “superior knowledge” about the risk posed by the rooster–especially since the prior attack did not result in the type of serious wounds experienced by the plaintiff.
The Court also pointed to the plaintiff’s experience as a professional pet-sitter “with at least nine years of experience.” The plaintiff herself acknowledged she had a professional responsibility to educate herself about the risks of dealing with an unfamiliar animal. Under these circumstances, the Court said she could not blame the rooster’s owners for her lack of preparation.