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Georgia Supreme Court Reinstates Lawsuit Over Pitbull Attack

When is a dog owner legally responsible for an attack that injures someone else? Georgia law states that anyone who “keeps a vicious or dangerous animal” is liable for “careless management” of said animal. The question then becomes, how do you know when a dog is vicious or dangerous?

Steagald v. Eason

In 2015, the Georgia Court of Appeals dismissed a personal injury lawsuit brought by the victim of a pitbull attack. The court said there was no evidence that the defendants, the pitbull’s owner, had specific knowledge their dog might commit an “unprovoked attack on a stranger coming into the yard.” The court brushed off evidence of the pitbull’s “snapping” and other prior aggressive behaviors as “not unusual” for a dog.

The victim and her husband did not accept the Court of Appeals’ ruling. They appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. On March 6, the justices unanimously reversed the Court of Appeals and said the victim could proceed with her case before the trial court.

Although Georgia adheres to the “first bite rule” when it comes to liability for animal attacks, the Supreme Court cautioned against taking that description literally. The first bite principle means a victim must prove the owner had “reason to know” about their dog’s “propensity to do harm” to others. But this does not mean a dog has to bite someone for the owner to be on notice.

Nor does it require evidence of the exact same kind of attack experienced by the plaintiff. This is what the Court of Appeals held in this case: The pitbull never bit anyone entering the yard before, so the owners were unaware of the animal’s potential to do so. The Supreme Court rejected this standard.

Instead, the Supreme Court said a jury could infer from other evidence of aggressive behavior–namely, two “snapping” incidents reported a week before the victim was bitten–that the owners were aware of its dog’s propensity to attack. Indeed, the victim characterized the snapping incidents as attempted bitings. The Supreme Court said it would be up to a jury whether that was the case.

What You Need to Know About Georgia Dog Bite Laws

Here are some other things to keep in mind when it comes to an owner’s liability for dog bites:

  • There is no such thing as a “dangerous breed” under Georgia law, i.e. the fact you were bitten by a pitbull does not automatically prove the owner’s liability.
  • The owner is only liable if it allows the dog to “go at liberty” knowing of its vicious tendencies.
  • If an owner fails to keep their dog leashed when required to do so by city or county ordinance, that is sufficient to prove “vicious propensity.”
  • A victim cannot collect damages if “his own act” provoked the dog attack in any way.
  • While the Supreme Court said snapping–or attempted biting–may be evidence of vicious tendencies, other routine dog behaviors, such as barking and growling, are not.