Your kids have been begging you for a dog. After going back and forth about what to do, you decide to surprise your family, and you head down to the local shelter. You see a cute mutt and decide he is the one. When you first meet the pooch, he seems playful and well adjusted. The new rescue is a hit with the family. Everyone immediately falls in love.
However, after several weeks, you notice the dog is not so playful when strangers come to the house. He barks and snarls at the mailman, and when joggers run by your house he scratches violently at the window. Finally, one afternoon your child’s friend walks in the front door and Fido lunges at him. Fortunately, no one is hurt, but you begin to worry. What if that lunge had ended with a bite? What if that bite really hurt someone? Would I be responsible?
Georgia law says that, in order for a homeowner to be responsible for an injury caused by their dog, the dog must (1) have a vicious or dangerous propensity, and (2) the owner of the dog knew or should have known of such propensities. (O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7)
Typically, a propensity to be vicious means the dog has bitten before, but, even if your dog has not bitten someone, it still could be “dangerous,” making you liable. In our example, the lovable rescue dog’s history of lunging at guests may be enough to alert the owners that they have a “violent dog.” If that dog were to lunge at someone again, and this time make contact, either by biting guests or knocking them over, the owner could be open to liability.
The above example focuses on your dog while he is in your house. However, what if your dog escapes your fenced yard or gets loose from his leash and bites somebody? Georgia law also says that if your city or county has a law requiring your dog to be on a leash, and the dog is off leash when he bites someone, it is presumed the dog has a vicious propensity. In other words, if he bites someone when he is off leash, in public, then your dog does not get one free bite.
Dog-bite cases may seem relatively straightforward, but they can be very fact-specific. Whenever you are confronted with a dog bite, it is always a good idea to contact an experienced personal injury lawyer, who can help determine if your dog is entitled to “one free bite.”
By Aaron Strimban, contributing writer and personal injury trial lawyer at Tidwell & Strimban.