- Under Georgia law, negligent dog owners and keepers may be held liable for damages when dogs injure people by biting, attacking, or causing them to have an accident while escaping an attack.
- To recover compensation, the victim must prove either that the owner was aware of previous attacks or aggressive behavior by the dog and was careless or that the owner violated leash ordinances by failing to properly secure the dog.
- The victim must also prove that they didn’t provoke the dog to bite or attack—the owner cannot be held liable if the dog was provoked.
- A strong dog bite claim is supported by evidence, such as witness statements, animal control records, and documentation of an owner’s violation of state or local ordinances.
If you’re bitten by a dog, you may suffer significant injuries and medical costs, not to mention trauma from the attack. Fortunately, there are laws in place designed to protect the public from injury or death caused by dangerous animals as well as compensate victims for their injuries.
Under Georgia’s Responsible Dog Ownership Act, a dog’s owner may be held liable for damages if their pet attacks another person or animal—even if the owner wasn’t present during the attack. This guide explains who may be held responsible as an owner and how to get compensation for injuries caused by a dog.
Who Is Considered the Dog’s Owner?
Georgia law states that an owner can be “any person or legal entity . . . possessing, harboring, keeping, or maintaining custody or control of a dog.” O.C.G.A. § 4-8-21. As a legal entity, a corporation or other type of business may be considered an owner under this law. A dog’s ownership can be determined by its residence, registration documents, or adoption/purchase records.
Be aware that a dog can have more than one owner and that each owner can be held legally responsible for injuries caused by their dog. An exception to this rule is when the dog belongs to a minor—only individuals over 18 can be held responsible as an owner, which means the child’s parent(s) can be liable for damages caused by the dog.
How to Find the Dog’s Owner
In many cases, it’s easy to identify the attacking dog’s owner, especially when it’s a familiar dog in your neighborhood. Sometimes, however, you may not know who the dog belongs to, or the owner may simply deny ownership of the animal.
If you know where the dog resides, you can search property records online to determine the homeowner(s). While this may not conclusively establish the homeowner’s liability, it can help locate the dog’s owner. If the homeowner doesn’t live at the residence, however, and instead rents to a tenant, you’ll need to find out the tenant’s name. In situations where a tenant’s dog has injured someone, the property owner may be required to provide the tenant’s contact information to animal control or local law enforcement.
If a homeowner or tenant denies that they own the dog, you can ask for assistance from local authorities to verify ownership. Evidence that helps to establish ownership includes registration documents, adoption/purchase records, tags, microchips, or veterinarian history.
You may discover that the person caring for the dog at the time of the attack is not the permanent owner but was merely keeping the pet for a family member or friend. However, the law is clear that anyone exercising “custody or control” of a dog may be held liable. Accordingly, if a person is keeping someone else’s dog and it attacks, that person could be responsible for damages.
If a stray dog bites you, it can be challenging to recover compensation because there’s no owner to file an insurance claim against or sue in court. A possible exception is when a stray dog is under the control of a government agency at the time of the attack. For example, if a dog is being transported by county animal control officers or is housed at the local animal shelter and it escapes and attacks you, you may be able to hold the county responsible for your injuries.
How Dog Owners Are Held Liable
After you’ve identified the owner, you or your attorney must prove the owner is liable for the injuries caused by their dog. You must also be able to show that you didn’t provoke the dog to attack you.
Georgia law provides two ways that a dog owner may be held responsible for a dog bite injury. First, the owner may be liable if they knew or should have known that they owned a dangerous dog and handled it carelessly. Second, an owner could be liable for carelessly managing a dog that got loose or allowing it to roam free in violation of leash laws.
The owner was careless with a dangerous dog
To prove liability under the first method, you must show the dog had a dangerous nature that a reasonable owner would have known about. For example, if the dog had bitten, attacked, or chased people or pets on previous occasions, that could prove the dog was dangerous. Showing that the owner was aware of such incidents helps establish they had knowledge of their dog’s dangerous propensity. You or your attorney can document the dog’s dangerous history and the owner’s knowledge through witness statements, police reports, animal control records, or hospital records.
In addition, you could also search for registration documents showing the dog has been classified by local authorities as vicious or dangerous. Under Georgia law, a dog may be classified as “dangerous” under the following circumstances:
- It causes “a substantial puncture of a person’s skin by teeth without causing serious injury” (a nip, scratch, or abrasion is not sufficient);
- It aggressively attacks in a way that causes a person to reasonably believe the dog posed a threat of serious injury even if no bite occurs (barking, growling, or showing teeth is not sufficient but chasing someone may be); or
- While off the owner’s property, it kills a pet animal (unless the dog was working as a hunting, herding, or predator-control dog).
In other words, an animal control officer may determine that a dog is dangerous based on aggressive behavior—it’s not necessary for the dog to bite or physically touch the victim. For example, if you fall and scrape your knees while trying to escape a dog that is chasing you, the officer may decide it’s a dangerous animal.
“Vicious” is a more extreme classification that involves a dog inflicting a serious injury on someone who was bitten or reasonably trying to escape an attack. In the above scenario, for example, if you fell and broke your leg or were hit by a car while trying to escape the dog, the officer may classify it as vicious because the injury was more severe.
Any time a dog is classified as dangerous or vicious by animal control, the owner is notified and required to register it under the statute. Thus, showing the dog was classified is evidence that the owner had actual knowledge of its dangerous nature.
Keep in mind that if a dog bit you or chased you while you were trespassing on the owner’s property, the insurance company can argue that you provoked the attack and are barred from recovering damages.
The dog owner violated leash ordinances
To prove liability under the second method, it’s not necessary to show the owner knew the dog was dangerous. All you need to prove is that you were injured because the owner carelessly managed their dog or allowed it to roam free in violation of leash laws.
Many counties and cities throughout Georgia have leash laws that mandate where a dog may be kept, when they must be leashed, and how long the leash can be. If an owner violates these ordinances and lets their dog run loose, the owner may be responsible for subsequent injuries.
In some cases, an owner could incur liability even if their pet escaped from a broken fence without their knowledge. Georgia law makes it clear that an owner doesn’t have to be at the scene of the attack to be held responsible for their dog’s aggressive behavior.
Who Pays When Dog Owners Are Liable?
If you suffer an injury from a dog bite or attack, you have the right to sue the dog’s owner or keeper. Typically, however, you should first seek compensation by filing a claim against the dog owner’s insurance company. Dog bite claims are often settled by the insurance carrier without victims having to file a lawsuit.
Most homeowners and renters insurance policies provide liability coverage for dog attacks and bite injuries regardless of where the attack took place. For example, if a dog is running loose and bites you while you’re walking on a public street, the carrier that insures the owner must pay. If a friend’s dog gets loose and hurts someone while you’re keeping it, your insurance carrier may be responsible for compensating the victim. Georgia requires that owners of vicious dogs maintain a minimum of $50,000 in liability insurance.
Businesses usually have general liability insurance policies that cover dog bites as well, and certain commercial coverage specifically includes dog bite protection. If the owner or keeper doesn’t have insurance coverage, you can file a lawsuit to recover compensation from their personal assets.
Can Owners be Criminally Charged for Dog Attacks?
Yes. If a county or state has classified a dog as dangerous or vicious, and the dog owner’s negligence caused someone to be injured, the owner could face criminal prosecution. Whether the state charges them with a misdemeanor or a felony depends on the seriousness of the injuries and what the owner did, or did not do, prior to the attack.
A dog owner may also be subject to criminal penalties, including substantial fines and imprisonment, if they encourage or permit their dog to bite someone. Georgia law also prohibits an owner previously convicted of dangerous dog violations from owning a dog. If the convicted owner does acquire a dog that hurts someone, the owner could face mandatory jail time.
Can a Landlord be Held Liable in Dog Bite Cases?
In limited circumstances, yes. Under O.C.G.A. § 44-7-14, a landlord is not responsible to third parties for damages resulting from the tenant’s negligence or illegal use of the premises. That means the landlord is not usually liable for a dog owned by a renter—the victim’s claim is against the renter’s insurance carrier.
However, landlords are liable for damages caused by their failure to keep the premises in good repair. For example, if a tenant’s dog escapes through a broken gate the landlord was obligated to repair and injures someone, the victim might have a claim against the landlord.
To prove a personal injury claim, the victim must demonstrate that the landlord knew the dog was dangerous, and the landlord’s failure to keep the property in a safe condition caused the victim’s damages.
Can a Business be Held Liable in a Dog Bite Claim?
Yes. A business may be responsible for injuries if the dog was owned by that entity or if it was in possession or control of the dog at the time of the attack. In cases where a business owner is deemed the responsible party, the victim may seek compensation under the company’s insurance policy.
Businesses protected by guard dogs, retail stores that permit customers to bring their pets inside, and dog kennels are good examples of companies likely to have a liability insurance policy covering dog bite damages.
Understand Your Rights in a Dog Bite Claim
If you’ve been injured by a dog, you should consider your options for recovering damages against the owner or insurance company responsible. Our experienced dog bite attorneys assist people who have been bitten or attacked by dangerous animals. We can answer all of your questions including how long you have after a dog bite to file a claim.
To learn more about how we assist clients with a dog bite claim, call The Millar Law Firm today at (770) 400-0000 or contact us online to set up a free consultation with one of our attorneys.