At some point, many of us have either been bitten or witnessed someone else bitten by a dog or even a cat. Perhaps, it was another animal; however, dogs and cats are very common animals, often run loose and are the most likely culprit behind an animal bite. When this happens, does the animal’s owner have any liability for the injury? Maybe. As with most legal questions, nothing ever seems to be cut and dry, as there are facts and circumstances to consider, laws to apply and defenses to assert.
Looking to Georgia law, O.C.G.A. 51-2-7 provides in pertinent part as follows: 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. Alright, this is not the entire code section, but just reading the first sentence, one can easily determine that you would need to prove (1) the accused actually owned or kept the animal; (2) you would need to prove the animal is vicious or dangerous; (3) the owner was careless in his management of the animal OR he allowed it to roam free; (4) you would need to prove an actual injury; (5) you would need to prove damages; and (6) you would need to prove that you did not provoke the animal.
Let us continue into the second sentence of this code section, In proving vicious propensity, it shall be sufficient to show that the animal was required to be at heel or on a leash by an ordinance of a city, county, or consolidated government, and the said animal was at the time of the occurrence not at heel or on a leash. The next sentence requires you to determine if there are any applicable local leash laws and review them to determine if the laws were possibly violated. If there are “leash laws”, then you would need to prove the dog was not at heel or on a leash. A dog could be at heel with or without a leash; however, being “at heel” depends on the position of the dog to the owner and how close the dog was walking with its owner- – all fact questions that would have to be proven. In some situations, one may even have to argue the instrument used on the dog was, in fact, a leash. I hope you are beginning to see how something so cut and dry in our day to day understanding of fault, right and wrong, becomes much more complicated under the scrutiny of our legal system.
Going into the third sentence of this code section, it says, The foregoing sentence shall not apply to domesticated fowl including roosters with spurs. Now, we are moving into some exceptions. Many of our laws are written in a format of “this is the law except when that”, which adds another layer of complication. Here, the statute is carving out an exception to the leash laws for, perhaps, a peacock or rooster attack. In fact, I have actually heard of an individual being attacked by a large Emden goose and, while it did not do much harm, the goose was extremely aggressive and caused the individual quite a scare.
The last sentence of this code section provides that The foregoing sentence shall not apply to domesticated livestock. I read this sentence to mean, “foregoing sentence” is not referring to the actual “foregoing sentence” but to the sentence prior to the foregoing sentence and that domesticated livestock do not need to be at heel or on a leash. Nonetheless, some might argue this sentence is not clear and that the “foregoing sentence” really means the sentence just prior (which was the exception to the leash laws) and that domesticated livestock would need to be at heel or on a leash. So, if your goat knocks down and injures someone, would a lawyer argue the goat roaming free should have been on a leash. It can be a crazy world and, to be honest, in my more than two decades practicing law, I have certainly heard more outlandish arguments.
Another note on this topic is that when an attorney is evaluating a case, we are normally not reviewing just one law that applies, but there could be several laws that could be applicable. For example, O.C.G.A. 51-3-1 is another statute that might apply if a person were injured on your property. We will not examine this code section as closely as O.C.G.A. 51-2-7, but to provide a simple summation, it says that if you invite someone on your property, even by implication and not an actual invite, and that person gets injured because you did not keep your property safe, he could sue you for his damages.
From the above reading, it is clear that investigative work is necessary before an individual could bring a claim or ultimately recover any damages. The victim must prove certain facts that the statute or statutes require in addition to the fact he was bitten by the dog. The law places the burden on the victim to prove these facts. In addition, there are cases out there that say a dog that has bitten another dog is not enough to “prove” that the same dog would bite a human.
If a dog bites you, insist the owner provide proof the pet has an up to date rabies vaccination. If you own a pet that has bitten before or if you fear it might, be extremely cautious; make sure the pet is safe and secure when you have visitors and follow the leash law in your community; consider having the animal checked out by your veterinarian to determine if there is a medical reason for its aggression; and consider sending your pet for some professional training. It is no fun to visit with a friend while in fear of her pet and certainly most of us do not want a friendship to end in litigation.
If you have been bitten or attacked by an animal, you should contact an attorney to fully evaluate the facts, the laws and determine whether you might have a case.
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