Once Bitten… The Georgia Supreme Court (slightly) Relaxes the “One Free Bite Rule”
Imagine for a moment that you are on a street in your own neighborhood, walking or jogging along as content as you are given to be. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, you encounter a fairly large dog who is not only off his leash, but apparently off his meds as well. The dog attacks you, tearing at your legs and arms with force you cannot defend. When the dog finally relents, you find yourself seriously injured. What now?
In the state of Georgia there are two primary hurdles to financial recovery in dog bite cases; whether insurance coverage attaches to the claim, and whether the dog owner was somehow negligent. While the first question is relatively cut-and-dry, the second requires a deeply nuanced examination of the dog owner’s behavior.
The issue of whether insurance coverage extends to the attack usually rests on whether the acknowledged dog owner is also a home owner. A typical home-owners insurance policy in Georgia will have a certain specified amount of coverage for liability claims such as home accidents, falling trees, and, of course, dog bites. This coverage most commonly falls in the $100k to $300k range and is often paid in full by the insurer if the attack was especially vicious and due to negligence. Without this type of policy in place, a dog bite victim is left with suing the individual dog owner, which seldom works to anyone’s benefit.
In the example scenario above, it is enough that the dog was off leash and off the owner’s property to establish negligence on the part of the dog owner. A prudent dog owner would not allow that to happen, therefore a successful claim is likely. However, if the dog was restrained or confined to the owner’s property at the time of the attack, there must be something more to establish fault.
Many states follow something called the “one bite rule”: A rule that says that the owner of a domesticated animal will be held strictly liable for injuries caused by the animal, but only if the owner knew or should have known about the animal’s dangerous or vicious propensities. This is another way of saying, “Was the dog owner on notice that this sort of attack might occur?” If the answer is yes, the claim will almost certainly succeed because again, a prudent dog owner would not have allowed a second incident. If the answer is no, the claim will likely fail, but the dog owner would then be on notice going forward.
Georgia had long followed this rule, holding that a dog owner has no liability as a matter of law to a person whom his dog bites and injures unless the owner was aware that his dog has previously been aggressive. And, in 2017 the Georgia Supreme Court ruled, in Steagald v. Eason, 300 Ga. 717, that two prior “snaps” by a dog at the neighbors were really just “unsuccessful bites” and were enough to put the owner on notice that his dog may have a vicious propensity. Justice Blackwell clarified this stronger position, stating, “An attempt to bite in the absence of provocation most certainly may be proof of a propensity to bite without provocation. And as the Court of Appeals correctly recognized in earlier decisions, when the evidence shows that an owner or keeper knows of such an attempted bite — that a dog has snapped at someone, nicked someone with its teeth, or otherwise used its mouth to attack someone without injuring her — it may well be sufficient to establish knowledge of a propensity to bite.”
Establishing notice on the part of the dog owner under this new threshold is somewhat easier for dog bite victims, but it can still be challenging. There are recent cases that proclaim that mere growling and lunging is enough to create a presumption of aggression, (See Kringle v. Elliott, 301 Ga. App. 1) while other Courts have ruled that some physical contact between person and dog is necessary. Short of a “smoking gun” incident of an actual previous bite, it may also suffice to create a multi-witness narrative around the animal, but this is likely to be a close issue on which a Court could rule for or against the victim. A victim might seek to collect a variety of stories from neighbors and friends about their own encounters with the aggressive dog, getting their honest opinions regarding the dog’s nature and disposition. If the story is compelling, it might be enough to establish the dog owner’s prior awareness and achieve a positive outcome for the victim.
An attack by a vicious animal can change one’s life, physically, mentally, and financially. If it should happen to you, seek proper care for those injuries and call the Law Offices of The Millar Law Firm. We have over 75 combined years of experience in exactly these types of cases, and we can help.