Landlord Liability for Off-Premises Dog Attack in Georgia

dogIn a 2017 Georgia dog bite case, a woman suffered serious injuries as a result of a dog attack. She and her husband sued the owners of the dogs and their landlord, claiming her injuries were due to the dog owners’ failure to stop their dogs from leaving their fenced backyard and the landlord’s failure to keep the gate latch in good repair.

The case arose when the landlord leased a home to a couple who moved in with their three kids and a dog. The home had a big backyard that was enclosed by a wooden fence. Months after the couple moved into the house, someone taking care of the lawn broke the front gate latch. The husband told the landlord the latch had been broken, but the latch was never repaired, and the husband and wife didn’t follow up. Instead, he secured the gate by tying it with a dog leash and placed weights and a cement block at the bottom. In spite of these precautions, the family’s dog escaped from the home and was hit by a car and killed.

The couple adopted two Pit Bull Terrier puppies that they kept in the yard during the day and in the basement overnight. The dogs didn’t show aggressive tendencies, and they played with the couple’s kids and nieces.

One afternoon, the plaintiff was walking her two small dogs in the neighborhood when the two dogs raced toward her and started attacking her dogs. One of the plaintiff’s dogs ran away, but the plaintiff picked up the other dog to protect it, and the two pit bulls knocked her down and attacked her. A neighbor called the police, and the police officer tried to stop what was happening by kicking the dogs. This didn’t work, so he shot them and killed them. The plaintiff was airlifted to the hospital.

Shortly after the attack, the dog’s owner came home and saw that the front gate was open and the dogs had run off. She drove around to look for them. She found out from a reporter that two dogs had attacked a woman. The owner was afraid that her dogs were responsible and called her husband to tell him what had happened.

The husband came home and spoke to the police officers. He confirmed it was his dogs who were involved in the attack. He was charged with four counts of ordinance violations related to vicious animals, failing to display a current vaccination tag, failing to restrain an animal, and permitting an animal to be a public nuisance. He pled guilty.

Soon afterward, the plaintiff and her husband sued the dog owners, claiming that it was their failure to stop the dogs from escaping the yard that caused her injuries. They also added the landlord as a defendant on the basis that his failure to keep the latch in good repair also caused injuries. The couple and landlord filed answers.

When discovery was concluded, the defendant landlord moved for summary judgment. He argued that the plaintiffs hadn’t shown any evidence that his failure to repair the latch was a legal cause of the woman’s injuries. Summary judgment was granted in the landlord’s favor. The court found he’d breached his duty to keep the property in good repair, but the plaintiffs hadn’t presented a factual issue on whether the dogs had shown vicious propensities or that the owner had knowledge of the same.

The plaintiffs appealed. The plaintiffs claimed that the lower court made a mistake in granting summary judgment in favor of the landlord. They argued that there were factual issues concerning whether the dogs had previously shown viciousness.

OCGA § 51-2-7 provides that someone who owns or keeps a vicious or dangerous animal of any kind and who, through its careless management, causes an injury to someone else who doesn’t provoke the injury by his own act can be liable in damages to someone else who is injured. The plaintiffs needed to show:  (1) a dog owner carelessly managed the pet or permitted it to go freely, (2) the pet was unrestrained or vicious at the time of the injury in violation of a local ordinance, and (3) the pet caused injuries. To show a vicious propensity, it’s enough to show an animal was supposed to be at heel or on a leash through city ordinance, and at the time of the attack, he wasn’t.

OCGA § 51-2-7 relieves a plaintiff from showing that a dog had a tendency to be vicious by allowing her to show instead a violation of an ordinance requiring the dog to be at heel or on a leash. In this case, the court emphasized that the couple’s dog had never shown vicious propensities. However, the plaintiffs had stated in the complaint that the dogs were running wild in violation of Code of Henry County Article I, Section 3-4-9, Subsections (2), (3), (5), and (8), at the time of the attack. The owners’ prior awareness was not implicated, and it was inappropriate for the court to focus on that.

The court reasoned that under OCGA § 44-7-14, the landlord was out of possession and couldn’t be held liable for tort damages unless the plaintiffs could show their damages were attributable to his defective construction of the home or failure to keep it in repair. The landlord argued the statute only provided landlord liability for injuries on the premises, but the court disagreed. It noted that a landlord is responsible for damages arising from a failure to keep the premises in repair. There is no limit in the statute for damages occurring on the property. In this case, the dog owners had told him the latch was broken. Judgment was reversed.

Atlanta personal injury attorney Christopher Simon has many years of experience with a wide variety of negligence actions, and he is ready to help you assess and bring a potential claim. If you’ve recently been injured by another party’s animal and believe it may be a result of negligence, feel free to contact us and arrange a complimentary case evaluation.

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