In Georgia, dog bite law used to require that the victim prove the following: (1) that the animal was dangerous or vicious; (2) that the owner knew that the animal was dangerous or vicious; and (3) that the owner carelessly managed the animal or let it run free. This established law became known as the first bite rule which meant that every dog was entitled to one free bite before being labeled as a dangerous or vicious dog under Georgia law so as to establish liability and fault against the owner. Technically, a victim had to prove a prior bite by the dog to show the jury that the dog was dangerous and vicious. However, as of today, the Supreme Court of Georgia, in a unanimous decision, held that victims of a dog attack need not prove evidence of a prior actual first bite by the dog to establish liability under O.C.G.A. 51-2-7.
In Steagald v. Eason (Ga. SC S16G0293), a father and mother allowed their son (Eason family) to bring home a pit bull as a pet. The parents required that the son build a dog pen in the back yard. The son did so, and the pit bull came to live at the home. On the first day that that pit bull was in the backyard, it growled and snapped at the mom as she tried to feed the dog. Later that same day, the dog growled, barked and snapped at the father as he extended his hand close to the dog. About a week later, the son was playing with the dog in the back yard and the dog was not confined to the dog pen, although he was on a lead. A female adult neighbor just happened to walk into the back yard through the gate and approached the dog and extended her arm. The dog jumped at the neighbor, bit her arm, and latched onto it. The neighbor tried to run away but slipped and fell down. While she was down on the ground, the dog bit and latched onto her right leg. According to the case facts, the woman sustained serious injuries as a result of the attacks.
At some point in time, the woman filed suit against the Eason family for medical bills, injuries and pain and suffering against the parents under O.C.G.A. 51-2-7 which allows for damages against an owner or keeper of a “vicious or dangerous animal.” The neighbors set forth that the pit bull was dangerous and vicious under the code section as the dog was involved in two snapping incidents against the parents a week before the actual dog bite as proof that the Eason family knew the pit bull had a propensity to bit and attack without provocation. The Court of Appeals noted that the evidence did not indicate any prior attacks on people or animals and that snapping amounted to “merely menacing behavior” and affirmed summary judgment for the Eason family.
The Supreme Court of Georgia viewed the snapping incidents with favorable inferences to the neighbors and determined that snapping at the parents was actually an attempt to bite the parents. Further, the Supreme Court reasoned that such snapping without provocation may be proof of a propensity of the dog to bite. Thus, whether or not the Eason family had knowledge that the pit bull had a propensity to bite another without provocation in view of the prior snapping incidents was a question to be decided by the jury for damages under O.C.G.A. 51-2-7. The importance of this decision to dog bite victims is that victims no longer need evidence of a prior dog bite to be able to take their claim to trial. Now, snapping, lunging and jumping by a dog is sufficient to show propensity to bite. Consequently, it is going to be easier to get dog attack cases to the jury stage which will help dog bite victims settle their cases prior to going to trial. If the dog bite claim needs to be presented to the jury, then it is of utmost importance to find an experienced dog bite lawyer that can prepare your case and present your damages to the insurance company and the jury – whether for settlement or trial. For blog posts regarding dog bite law and cases, click here, here and here.
The Law Office of Kevin C. Ford is currently accepting dog bite cases throughout the State of Georgia. If you or a loved one has been injured as the result of a dog attack, then please contact me immediately to discuss your rights under the law. It is important to contact me as soon as possible to document and preserve all evidence.