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Dog Bite Injury Lawsuit Guide

Dog bites and dog attacks are preventable tragedies. Dog owners and keepers can, and should, take steps to prevent their animals from harming other people. When they don’t, it is important to know what to do and what your legal rights are. Learn about Georgia law here, and whether you need an attorney for your dog attack case.

State of Georgia Law allows dog bite and dog attack victims to recover money from negligent dog owners and keepers. This is true when an owner or keeper knows of a dog’s vicious nature but fails to properly control the dog. It can also be true when the owner/keeper carelessly allows a dog to escape from his or her property.

Georgia’s Dog Bite Laws

Generally speaking, dog bite laws in Georgia are more friendly to dog owners than to dog bite victims, especially when compared to dog bite laws in other states throughout the country. Georgia Law O.C.G.A. 51-2-7 specifically states:

“A person who owns or keeps a vicious or dangerous animal of any kind and who, by careless management or by allowing the animal to go at liberty, causes injury to another person who does not provoke the injury by his own act may be liable in damages to the person so injured.”

Georgia Law Holds a Dog Owner Responsible

In 2012 the State of Georgia enacted the “Responsible Dog Ownership Law,” codified at O.C.G.A. 4-8-1 through 4-8-33. This law provides some protection to the public as well as dog owners from injuries resulting from dog attacks. Georgia’s law provides some minimal standards but also allows counties and cities to have their own dog restraint and dog-bite ordinances.

In Georgia, a dog owner may be held liable if it can be shown that the owner was aware that the dog was dangerous; that is, that the owner knew or should have known the animal was aggressive or a bite-risk, and that the owner was careless in handling the dog or allowing it to be around other people. People often refer to this as the “one free bite” rule, which is a bit misleading because proving a prior actual bite is not always necessary. The standard is whether the dog owner knew or should have known that the dog had a tendency to cause the injury in question.

Another way of proving a dog bite case against the owner is to show that there were leash laws or local ordinances dealing with at-large animals, and that the dog owner violated these laws. If you are bitten by the dog while the dog is unleashed or running free, you may be able to take action against the dog’s owner by showing that the owner wrongfully or carelessly failed to obey requirements to secure the animal.

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Georgia’s Dog Bite Laws Explained

Under Georgia law, there are at least two general ways to hold a dog owner liable for injuries. Georgia’s Dog Bite Law provides a way for you to prove your case and recover damages if:

1. A dog owner or keeper actually knew or the owner/keeper should have known that the dog was aggressive or dangerous.

O.C.G.A. 51-2-7 requires showing:

  • The dog was aggressive or had a tendency to cause the injury that resulted,
  • The owner/keeper knew or should have known the dog was vicious, and
  • The dog’s owner/keeper managed the dog carelessly or let it wander free despite its known aggressive tendencies.

Lawyers will seek to establish these facts by looking at a variety of sources. For instance, animal control, police, and hospital records may indicate that the dog has a history of bites, aggressive behavior, and attacks on other animals.

2. The dog was required to be leashed or under the owner’s control, and the dog owner did not meet this requirement.

This requires showing:

  • There was a local ordinance requiring the dog to be on a leash, muzzled, or otherwise controlled by its owner,
  • The dog was not leashed, muzzled, or controlled as required by law, and
  • The dog owner carelessly managed the dog or allowed it to go free.

“First Bite Rule”

The first bite rule does not mean that the dog gets his first bite free, or that he must bite somebody before he is labeled ‘dangerous.’ Rather, it means that the animal has given a prudent keeper or owner reason to expect such behavior. The key is in the owner or keeper’s knowledge or belief of such propensities. If the owner/keeper knows that the dog has bitten previously, or that his or her dog tends to threaten humans, there may be liability. On the other hand, if the dog had only growled or barked at people in the past, it is doubtful that a court will find that Georgia’s prior aggression rule will have been satisfied.

Read more about how the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled on Georgia’s dog bite rule.

Careless Management Rules

In addition to proving that the dog was vicious or dangerous, the statute also makes clear that an injury victim must be able to show that the dog owner or keeper “carelessly managed” a dog by letting it “go at liberty.” Finally, the injury victim must be able to prove that he or she had not provoked the dog to attack or bite. As you can see, the burden is placed on the victim to prove liability for a dog bite injury.

Vicious or Aggressive Dog Rules

In other words, a dog owner is protected in certain circumstances when their dog bites another person. First, as the statute suggests, the dog must be considered “vicious” or “dangerous” in order for the owner to be held liable. An injury victim can show that the dog was dangerous simply by proving that the animal had previously bitten a person or was required to be leashed per city ordinance.

Classified Dog Registration Rule

It is against the law for an owner to have a dog that has been classified as dangerous or potentially dangerous without a certificate of registration. O.C.G.A. 4-8-25.

Legal Definitions

Dangerous Dog. Georgia classifies a “Dangerous Dog” as a dog that has caused a substantial puncture of a human with its teeth; or a dog that attacks aggressively so as to pose an imminent threat of serious injury to a person. Mere actions of growling or baring of teeth or barking are not enough to classify a dog as dangerous. A dog may also be classified as dangerous if it kills a pet while away from the dog owner’s property. O.C.G.A. 4-8-21.

Exceptions. Military and/or police dogs are exempt. Bites or attacks by dogs against trespassers or persons attempting to abuse a dog or commit a crime are exempt. However, under Georgia law very young children may be immune to the trespass exception.

Serious Injury. Under the 2012 law, a ‘serious injury’ is one that creates a real or substantial chance or risk of death, or involves broken bones, lacerations needing stitches, or injuries requiring hospitalization or surgery, including plastic surgery.

Vicious Dog. Under the Act, a dog is classified as “Vicious” if it causes serious injury to a person either through biting or mauling the person, or causes an injury to a person who is trying to escape an attack—including falling down or even being hit by a car while running away.
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Settlement Information

Compensation Recoverability

To prove liability in a dog bite or dog attack case in the state of Georgia, it must be shown that the dog’s owner or handler did something wrong. For example, you should be able to recover compensation if you can prove:

  • The dog was known to be dangerous. An owner can be liable for an attack by a dog known to the owner to be dangerous, or if the owner should have known it was dangerous.
  • The dog was off-leash or unsecured. In addition, the owner’s violation of a local “leash law” or city/county animal control ordinance can lead to liability.

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Compensation Sources

Homeowners’ or renters’ insurance is an important source of compensation for many dog attack victims. One of the first things that experienced dog bite injury lawyers do is search for and locate all available sources of insurance. Most owners of homes have insurance; unfortunately, not many renters have policies that cover dog bites or attacks, but some do. Some of these insurance policies cover dog bites and other animal attacks.

Business insurance may cover a dog bite. Examples of this may include bites by guard dogs or personal pets being kept at a business open to the public.

Personal or business excess or umbrella insurance policies may cover injuries caused by dogs and other domestic animals, as well. If the bite or attack happened on the premises of a business, the company is likely to have a general liability insurance policy that may cover your damages.

Since 2012, Georgia has required owners of “vicious” dogs to maintain a minimum of $50,000 in liability insurance. The law defines a “vicious dog” as a dog that has in the past killed or seriously injured a person.

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Expenses and Damages Paid by a Dog’s Owner

In the Georgia Court System, certain damages are considered economic, meaning that they come with or have a dollar amount (such as medical bills or lost wages). Non-economic damages can vary significantly depending upon a jury’s perception of the incident that resulted in the dog bite injuries. These damages are not fixed amounts and can include such damages as compensation for physical pain, trauma, and emotional or mental suffering.

Types of expenses that are commonly awarded or recovered include:

  • Medical expenses and bills
  • Lost pay (wages) and earnings
  • Physical therapy
  • Reconstruction surgery
  • Physical pain and mental suffering
  • Loss of the quality of or enjoyment of one’s life

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Damages That Can Be Recovered After Being Bitten By a Dog

In Georgia, a dog bite victim may be compensated for both financial losses and for pain and suffering. In some cases, a plaintiff may also be awarded punitive damages as a means of punishing a defendant who acted with total and willful disregard for the safety of others.

The three types of damages that can potentially be recovered in dog bite cases in Georgia are known as general (for pain and suffering), special (for economic loss), and punitive (to punish or deter) damages.

  • Special damages are for the actual financial losses due to medical expenses, property damage (such as clothing or jewelry), lost income and, in the case of a death, funeral and burial expenses. It is important to calculate past and future medical expenses, such as for impending re-constructive surgery, as well as future income loss because of diminished earning power for a dog bite victim who has been disfigured or disabled.
  • General damages are compensation for non-financial or non-economic losses, such as physical and mental pain and emotional suffering, mental and emotional distress and, in a fatal dog attack, loss of companionship. The amount of general damages obtained through a dog bite lawsuit would be decided by a jury or through negotiations with the defendant’s insurance company. Often they are calculated as a multiple of total special damages awarded.
  • Punitive damages are intended to punish a dog’s owner if the owner was especially reckless or negligent in his or her conduct leading to the bite or dog attack incident. They also serve as a warning to others who would act as recklessly. Punitive damages are generally capped at $250,000 in Georgia.

A dog bite attorney will gather the evidence to show how badly the victim was harmed—the extent of injury—and seek the full amount of special and general damages that each case supports. Punitive damages, if available, can be negotiated into the settlement of some cases or awarded by a jury to punish or deter the at-fault party.

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Landlord Liability

It can be difficult to sue a Georgia landlord when a dog belonging to one of his or her tenants attacks or bites a person. In a Georgia case, Griffiths v. Rowe Props., 271 Ga. App. 344 (2005), a toddler was bitten by a renter’s dog inside the owner’s apartment.

The child’s mother sued the dog owner (tenant) and the owners of the apartment complex (landlord) as well as the leasing agent. The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that because there was no evidence that the landlord or leasing agent knew that the dog was dangerous and because the attack happened inside the tenant’s apartment—not in a common area under the landlord’s control—the landlord was not responsible.

If a landlord knows that a dog belonging to a tenant is dangerous and the bite happens in a common area, it is possible that the landlord could be liable for ordinary negligence for failing to keep the “premises and approaches safe.” See, Lidster v. Jones, 176 Ga. App. 392 (1985).

It would also appear to be the case that a landlord who rents a house to a tenant would not be liable because under a leasehold agreement, a landlord does not assume responsibility for the negligent actions of the tenant while occupying the property.

You can read about a factually-accurate case history, demonstrating how Georgia views these kinds of cases, in the following article: “Can you sue a landlord for your dog bite case? In Georgia, it can be difficult.”

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Proving a Dog Bite Case

In sum, the dog bite victim must be able to prove all of the following in order to become eligible for compensation in Georgia:

  • The dog is vicious or dangerous.
  • The owner was careless.
  • The injury victim did not provoke the dog.

Learn more about Georgia Dog Bite Laws in this article from our blog.

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Investigation

Knowing how to gather evidence in a dog bite case and proving your eligibility for compensation is the key to success. It is extremely important to promptly investigate to discover whether:

  • The dog has been vicious or shown aggressive tendencies. A dog can be shown to have presented an unreasonable risk when there is a past history of bites, aggressive or threatening behavior, attacks on other animals, or past aggression against you or others (even the dog’s own family members).
  • The dog’s owner was or should have been aware their dog might be dangerous. If the owner knew the dog was aggressive—having previously hurt or killed a person or animal—or if there were other signs of aggression, the owner should have been aware of the risk.
  • The owner carelessly handled the dog. For example, a dog owner may be negligent by allowing a dog off leash or to escape a yard (due to an inadequate or defective fence) when there is a local ordinance or leash law.

Sometimes, the case is clear-cut, such as when the dog escaped its confines before attacking you or another person. However, often the most difficult part of these cases is proving that the owner was actually aware of the canine’s problems. Proof that an owner knew or should have known their dog was dangerous or vicious can be proven in a variety of ways, such as through public information, available from local police or animal control records or veterinarian records. Neighbors attacked or harassed by a dangerous dog also provide sufficient evidence to prove knowledge of an animal’s propensity to be vicious.

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Proving Liability

Lawyers and investigators search for evidence that a dog has been a problem or menace in the past. They will speak with neighbors, animal control, and local officials and they will gather records in order to meet strict legal standards.

Discovering any violations of local dangerous dog and leash laws is critical. An owner’s failure to keep a dog inside a secure fence, on a leash, muzzled, or under the control of its owner can lead to liability.

If there is a legal violation, it is not always necessary to prove the dog’s owner knew the dog was dangerous in these cases. Instead, you may show that the owner:

  • Violated leash and restraint laws. Local leash laws, a court order, and county ordinances can all impose certain obligations on dog owners to make sure their animals are under control.
  • Failed to control the dog. A dog owner who fails to secure his or her dog on a leash is failing to handle or control the animal. The owner must also keep it confined. The dog owner can be liable for allowing the dog to go free or for not muzzling it.

When you can show that a dog owner failed to meet an existing legal obligation, this will help prove your case.

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Evidence Needed

Knowing what evidence to look for while investigating is important, so no time is wasted or evidence lost. Discovering why the attack occurred and proving liability and damages should include:

  • Witness statements — It is crucial to obtain statements from those who saw the attack and from animal control. This information can help to support your account of what happened. Witnesses can give sworn statements (affidavits or depositions) or testify in court.
  • Clothing — Save shirts, pants, and other clothing items that were torn, ripped, or bloodied in the attack, for this evidence can help to establish how the dog attacked you and the extent of your injuries.
  • Medical records — Emergency room personnel and other physicians will document your injuries and how they were treated. Records can show whether stitches, casts, shots, medication, or surgical procedures were required. A treating physician can also give an out-of-court sworn statement or testify.
  • Photos — Photos of the attack scene can prove important facts such as where the attack occurred and whether the dog was chained or kept in an enclosed area. Pictures of your injuries can also indicate the viciousness of the attack and prove the severity of your injuries.
  • Video footage — In some cases, actual video of the attack may be available. For instance, if the attack occurred at an apartment complex or other public place, security camera footage may be obtained.

Each piece of evidence can help build a case, allowing you and your attorney to construct an accurate account of what actually happened at the time of the incident.

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Special Circumstances

When the Dog Has Not Previously Bitten a Person

If a dog has not bitten a person before, you cannot usually rely on the “first bite” or “one free bite” rule. One way to prove the case is to show that the dog was at-large in violation of Code section 51-2-7, which says that a dog’s “vicious propensity” can be presumed if the dog is allowed to roam freely or be at liberty through careless management. Careless management might be leaving a door open or allowing a dog to escape from a yard that is not fenced.

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The Viciousness of Certain Breeds

In the eyes of Georgia law, dogs are harmless until proven otherwise. This means that you won’t win your case just because the dog was of a breed that many people consider more aggressive. Specifically, you won’t win just because the dog was a Pit Bull, Rottweiler, Akita Inu, or other large dog.

It will be necessary to prove in other ways that the dog had vicious propensities. Georgia’s courts have ruled that certain dog breeds are not presumed vicious.

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Knocked Down or Injured Running Away from A Dog Attack?

A person must not actually be bitten by a dog in order for his owner to be found negligent in a Georgia personal injury case. A dog that causes injury can create legal trouble for his owners by chasing someone, lunging at them, showing his teeth, or even snarling IF that animal causes another person to become injured AND the dog is improperly managed.

The following articles describe cases in which victims had a case when a dog chased them or knocked them down:

When a Dog Is Provoked

If a dog was being attacked or teased at the time of the incident, an owner may be able to use the defense that the dog was being provoked. Proof that a dog was being attacked or was provoked can be a successful defense in a dog bite lawsuit.

Provocation can come in the form of a dog being under obvious attack, or it could mean taunting or teasing an animal. In some cases, a dog may also have been provoked if, for example, a person was intruding on the dog’s property, such as in the case of trespassing or breaking and entering.

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Bitten by a Leashed Dog

Leashed dogs have been known to bite, and it is possible to prove liability in such cases.

In the case of Myers v. Ogden, a 2017 Georgia Court of Appeals case, an owner was walking a large dog in a park, on its leash. The dog owner testified she was able to handle and control the dog by herself. However, the dog suddenly lunged and bit a man walking past the owner and her dog. The Court found that the critical question was whether the dog’s owner/walker had kept the dog under control at all times, as required by the city’s local leash law.

Learn more about cases involving leashed dogs on our blog.

Criminal Consequences and Penalties for Dog Owners

Various city and county ordinances, usually relating to restraint of dogs, contain civil and criminal penalties for violation of leash laws and other local municipal codes.

Dog Owners Who Purposely Allow Their Dogs to Bite

Under Georgia’s assault and battery statutes, a person could potentially be criminally responsible for assault and/or battery if he or she purposely allows or encourages a dog to attack another person. Depending upon the dog owner’s intent, the severity of the harm, and the nature of the victim, these charges can range from misdemeanor offenses to felony offenses. Some of the convictions for these crimes carry required imprisonment.

There are numerous examples of cases throughout the country in which courts have held that dogs can be considered deadly weapons in assault and battery convictions. For instance, in one case just south of the Georgia border, Morris v. Florida, the court ruled that a dog can indeed be a deadly weapon.

Dog bite victims in Georgia may be able to present similar arguments under the state laws regarding assault and battery. In Georgia, simple assault is defined as a situation in which a person “attempts to commit a violent injury to the person of another” or “commits an act which places another in reasonable apprehension of immediately receiving a violent injury.” Simple battery is defined as a situation in which a person “intentionally causes substantial physical harm or visible bodily harm to another.”

In addition, a dog owner can be criminally liable for certain dog bite injuries even if the owner did not allow or encourage the dog to bite another person. Under Georgia law, a dog owner with previous convictions for dangerous dog violations can be charged with a felony offense, which comes with mandatory imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000.

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Legal Fees

Reputable attorneys carefully screen and evaluate each case to determine whether representation is warranted and would truly be beneficial to the client. Not all cases need a lawyer. For those that do, representation on a contingency-fee basis is a win-win.

Choose a law firm that does not charge an up-front fee. Any fee paid would be a percentage of the compensation obtained for you through a negotiated settlement of your injury case or verdict from a court or jury.

If your case does not win, you will have had a full investigation of your claim at no cost to you. When your case does win, the legal fee you pay will be a portion of the compensation paid to you, a percentage you have agreed upon.

In most cases represented by the Millar Law Firm, fees are 33.33% of the amount recovered if no lawsuit is filed, and 40% if a lawsuit has been filed. You won’t pay any legal fees if we don’t win the case and recover money for you.

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