In response to several highly-publicized dog attacks this year, including one that killed a 6-year old kindergartener as he walked to the bus stop, the Atlanta City Council voted to unanimously amend the city’s animal control measures related to dangerous or vicious dogs within the city. The amendment establishes the public safety and administrative procedures for the identification of dangerous and vicious dogs, the policy for subsequently registering dogs that are reported and determined to be dangerous or vicious, and imposes several statutory duties on the owners of such dogs. The Code of Ordinances for Atlanta can be found here.
The first major change relates to the definition of a “dangerous dog.” §18-115 previously defined a “dangerous dog” as “any dog that according to the records of any appropriate authority: (1) inflicts a severe injury on a human without provocation on public or private property; or (2) aggressively bites, attacks, or endangers the safety of humans without provocation after the dog has been classified as a potentially dangerous dog and after the owner has been notified of such classification.” Under the old ordinance, a dog was only defined as dangerous under the statute if the “appropriate authority” had record of the dog causing severe injury to a human or the dog had been previously designated as potentially dangerous, and the owner was aware of the designation. But, under the amended ordinance a dog is a “dangerous dog” if (1) its teeth cause a “substantial puncture” of a person’s skin without serious injury, (2) it aggressively attacks in a manner that causes a person to reasonably believe the dog posed an imminent threat of serious injury, even where no such injury occurs, or (3) while off the owner’s property, kills or seriously injures a pet animal.
By broadening the definition of a “dangerous” or “vicious” dog, the amendment reduces the burden on victims of dog attacks to establish the owner’s duty to the victim. In a negligence claim, the victim (plaintiff) must prove that the owner (defendant) owed a duty to the plaintiff, breached the duty owed, and the breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Under the negligence per se legal doctrine, a statute can establish a standard of conduct for breach of a duty where the victim is a member of the class the ordinance is designed to protect, and the injury caused by the owner’s conduct is the type of act the ordinance was meant to protect. Importantly, this doctrine creates a presumption that the owner owed a duty to the victim and breached that duty, which drastically increases a victim’s chances of recovering for her injuries. Moreover, because the amended ordinance designates a dog as dangerous if a person “reasonably believes” the dog poses an imminent threat of serious injury, a victim could establish a per se duty and breach of duty without the occurrence of any previous attack.