Many of us are responsible animal owners, and this guide should not be interpreted an indictment of dogs or their owners. However, dog bites are a problem in Georgia, and nationally, especially when it comes to young children as evidenced by national statistics. The American Humane Society estimates that there are almost 5 MILLION dog bites every year in the United States! Of those bites, children are the victims in approximately 50% of the attacks. Children also account for the most serious injuries and fatalities in dog bite cases. Nationally there are more than 12 deaths per year attributed to dog bites. Dog bites also constitute almost one-third of all claims against homeowner liability insurance. Given the current climate of dog bite litigation, this guide is a must-read for every dog owner in Georgia. If you find it helpful, please share it with your friends and neighbors to ensure they are doing everything they should to protect others from an inadvertent dog bite, and to ensure they are protecting themselves against liability.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) compiled a list of the most dangerous dog breeds, and some of the “regular culprits” top the list. The seven (7) most dangerous breeds the CDC identified: Pitbulls, Rottweilers, German Shepards, Huskies, Malamutes, Doberman Pinschers, and Chow Chows. Just like not all dogs within these breeds are dangerous, there are many breeds of dogs not identified in the above list that may have the propensity to attack under the right circumstances. Each factual circumstance is different, but it's helpful to review general Georgia law governing dog bite cases.
Under Georgia law, there is a presumption that dogs are harmless. Thus, a Plaintiff, the dog bite victim, bears the burden of overcoming this presumption by showing the dog owner had superior knowledge that the dog was not harmless. This statue differs from some other states, like California for example, where dog owners are considered strictly liable if their dog attacks someone, almost regardless of the circumstances, and offers responsible dog owners significant protection.
Georgia law provides for liability for dog bites through O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7, which sets forth the liability of owners and keepers of vicious or dangerous animals for injuries caused by those animals, or O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1, Georgia’s premises liability statute. Liability under a negligence theory does not exist in the instance of a dog bite action (for more information about traditional “negligence” lawsuits and the differences between those suits and dog bite suits, please download the free “Overview of Negligence Lawsuits” guide from our website under the Publications tab).
In Georgia, unless there is evidence that a dog was not at heel or on a leash, as required by local ordinance1 at the time of the dog bite, a Plaintiff must prove (1) that the dog was vicious or dangerous; and (2) that the owner knew it (or should have known it). The dog’s nature and the owner’s knowledge are two separate issues, and proof of both is necessary for recovery. These are very important components for dog owners to remember because 'superior knowledge' of the dog's propensity is often what provides for liability in these cases. For example, if your dog has behaved aggressively towards someone in the past and you knew about it (or a 'responsible dog owner' would have known about it), you would be held to have 'superior knowledge' regarding your dog's tendencies. Thus, the true test of liability is the owner’s superior knowledge of his dog’s temperament.
Georgia does have separate laws that address “dangerous dogs.” Georgia’s Dangerous Dog Control Law provides for the registration of dangerous dogs, proper enclosures, the purchasing of an insurance policy or surety bond against liability for personal injuries inflicted by the dog, and other requirements and penalties. See O.C.G.A. § 4-8-20 to 4-8-30. Under this Code, a dangerous dog is any dog that, according to the records of an appropriate authority inflicts a severe injury on a human being without provocation on public or private property at any time after March 31, 1989; or aggressively bites, attacks, or endangers the safety of humans without provocation after the dog has been classified as a potentially dangerous dog and after the owner has been notified of such classification.It is the intent of the General Assembly that the owner of a dangerous dog or potentially dangerous dog will be solely liable for any injury to or death of a person caused by such dog. O.C.G.A. § 4-8-30. Thus, it's important to separate dogs who have attacked before into a separate class by themselves when assessing liability – in essence, all dogs are innocent until proven guilty, but once they bite someone, the owner is on notice that the dog is potentially dangerous, and the expectation is now that the owner must take special precautions.
Even in cases where the dog owner is found to have violated a local ordinance, or otherwise behaved in a manner that may give rise to his liability, he may still try to defend his actions by claiming the plaintiff “assumed the risk” of interacting with the dog. The defense of assumption of the risk bars recovery when the evidence shows that the plaintiff, without coercion of circumstances, chooses a course or action with full knowledge of its danger and while exercising a free choice as to whether to engage in the act or not. So, for example, if you approach an individual and his dog in a public park and choose to pet the dog without encouragement or acquiescence of the owner – if that dog bites you, a court may decide you knew there was a risk in petting an unknown dog, and and by petting it anyways, you knowingly took a risk. In that case, you would be barred from recovering against the owner.
I would encourage all dog owners to familiarize themselves with O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7 and their local ordinances, both of which can be found through a simple Google search. Every county in Georgia has their own local ordinances governing expectations of dog owners, and it is critical that dog owners read and familiarize themselves with their local ordinances. Often, failure to follow your local ordinance will expose you to liability that could have otherwise been avoided.If you have any questions about what a particular ordinance means, please feel free to call us. Your homeowners insurance will cover you in the event your dog bites someone, but you should read the fine print to ensure you meet their reporting requirements because insurance companies are notorious for finding reasons to not cover your claims. The good news is the breed of dog typically does not affect your claim, though if you own a pit bull you need to discuss that with your insurance agent. In general, if your dog bites someone, you should record all the factual details and report it to your insurance company immediately as a potential claim. They will advise you about how to proceed next, and in the event you are sued, they will assign an attorney to defend your claim and you will be protected up to your policy limits.
What to do if you have been bitten by a dog
The first thing you should do if you have been bitten by a dog is get whatever information you can regarding the owner of the dog. Also get whatever information you can regarding the dog. If you are familiar with dogs, you want to note the dog's breed, color, height, weight, whether it was on a leash or not, etc. Cellphone cameras are great for documenting this type of evidence.
Secondly, seek medical attention. You may think it was a minor bite, but animal bites are notorious causes of infection, and if left untreated, the bite can lead to a serious injury or even death. You also don't know whether the dog has had a rabies shot, regardless of what the owner tells you.
Seeking medical attention also preserves evidence by allowing a medical professional to document the specifics of the wound. Take pictures of the wound (again, cellphone camera!).
Most bites will not be serious, and the good citizen in you will probably prevail and you will decide you don't need to follow up. In certain circumstances though, the bite can be severe, the medical bills can pile up, and you may decide you want to explore a suit. Any person bitten by a dog that was being negligently supervised is entitled to reimbursement for medical bills, lost wages, any lost future income, any future medical bills, any permanent injury or disfigurement, and reasonable pain and suffering. If you later determine the bite was serious enough to consider legal action, contact an experienced attorney who understands how to litigate these cases.