In June, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued an opinion addressing whether the state’s dog bite statute, OCGA § 51-2-7, violates the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The case stems from an attack resulting in the plaintiff suffering serious injuries, as well as the death of their pet. The plaintiff filed a negligence lawsuit seeking damages against the attacking dog’s owners. The plaintiff claimed that they were entitled to damages under OCGA § 51-2-7. The defendants filed a motion in limine, arguing that the statute violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
On appeal, the defendants claimed that the statue creates an irrebuttable presumption that an owner is aware of a dog’s vicious propensity. They claimed that this presumption violates procedural due process. Upon review, the court first addressed its duty to construe a statute as constitutional, whenever possible. In cases where a statute has two potential meanings, courts typically interpret it as constitutional. Using those principles, the court analyzed the defendant’s contention.
OCGA § 51-2-7 explains :
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.
Plaintiffs can prove a vicious propensity by showing that a government ordinance required the animal to be on a leash or restrained, and at the time of the incident, the animal was not controlled.
The defendants argued that the statute is facially invalid because it does not require the dog’s owner’s intent or knowledge of viciousness. They argued that creating a conclusive presumption based on a local ordinance was unconstitutional. The court conceded that the statute does not explicitly speak of the owner’s knowledge of dangerous propensity; however, the intent element is carried over from common law.
At common law, dogs were presumed to be a “harmless species,” and courts required proof of the animal’s dangerous nature and the owner’s knowledge of it before attaching liability to an animal’s actions. However, the second portion of OCGA § 51-2-7, displaces the presumption that a dog is harmless, and instead finds that unrestrained animals are “vicious.” Therefore, although there was a common-law presumption of harmlessness, the second portion of the statute provides that proving a dog is at large, in violation of a local ordinance, at the time of the accident, meets the requirement of proving dangerousness. Ultimately, the court held that there was a rational basis for concluding that limiting the need to litigate “viciousness” is appropriate where there is a local ordinance requiring restraint of these animals.
Have You Been Attacked by a Dog?
If you or someone you love has suffered a dog bite or other animal attack, contact us at Christopher Simon, Attorney at Law. Georgia injury cases require a comprehensive and detailed understanding of complex legal theories. Our attorneys possess the training and experience to handle these complicated cases. We have a history of successfully representing Georgia injury victims and recovering compensation on their behalf. Contact our office at 404-259-7635 to schedule a free initial consultation with an attorney at our law firm.