Product Liability – Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Sometimes we are inspired to give points to other lawyers for originality.

Product liability and dog bites are completely different matters, of course. If a dog were a product, it might be reasonable to expect warning labels to be tattooed upon the beast. It is not. Nor is it required, according to the Georgia Court of Appeals, for the owner of a dog to reveal any real or perceived “dangers” the dog might visit upon the new owners if and when a dog is given to new owners without benefit of a contract.

In this case, Coogle v. Jahangard, 271 Ga. App. 235 (2005), an individual found a stray dog and gave it to another family. There was no contract between any of the parties. The family kept the dog at their house as a pet for several years. During that time the animal played with children and never showed aggressive or dangerous behaviors.

When the dog bit and injured the face of an 11-year-old boy, the child’s mother sued not the owner of the dog, but the previous owner. She claimed that that the original owner should have warned the people to whom the dog was given that the dog had dangerous propensities. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the original owner had placed the dog in the ‘stream of commerce’ and therefore had a duty to warn of the dangers associated with the dog. This theory held that the original owner was liable to third parties harmed by that animal.

When the matter came before a judge, the defendant finder/first owner of the dog moved for summary judgment, asking the judge to dismiss the case since they no longer owned nor controlled the dog at the time of the incident. The trial judge granted this summary judgment and the plaintiffs appealed.

When the Georgia Court of Appeals reviewed the case, they found that the plaintiff’s complaint was not based either on the dog bite statute or the premises liability statute, since the incident happened somewhere other than property they owned and was the act of an animal they didn’t own or control. Furthermore, the defendant original dog owner was not guilty of negligence in breaching the standard arising from a contractual agreement between the parties since no contract existed. Lawyers for the plaintiff even argued that the dog’s disposition to bite could have been the reason the original owners disposed of it.

The Court would not consider that the dog was like a ‘product’ that can be reasonably predicted to behave in certain ways. The duty to warn users of product dangers do not apply to the transfer of ownership of a dog. Even if previous biting incidents had occurred, which was unclear because of conflicting testimony, the plaintiffs did not point to any law that would hold the original owner had a duty to warn anybody.

In this case, the dog won the day in court.

The lesson to be learned from this case is that a dog-bite case can be a difficult matter to win in court. Georgia’s position in dog bite matters, the “first bite rule,” is difficult enough to overcome. Proving that a dog has been aggressive in the past and that the owners of the dog were aware of such behavior can be nearly impossible. In this case, attempting to assign the liability to a former owner was inventive, but futile.

If you or someone you love has been injured in a dog-bite case, don’t trust your litigation to someone without extensive experience in this very technical legal niche. Call the personal injury specialists at The Millar Law Firm. We handle dog-bite cases regularly and know what has to be done in order to recover in court.

Call us today. You’ll be glad you did.

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