Sometimes, a dog bite is little more than annoying or embarrassing. But in a great many cases, the outcome is much worse. In fact, animal attacks account for roughly a third of the homeowners insurance claims in Georgia.
There’s more. The average settlement value of these claims has increased 90 percent since 2003. Medical bill inflation was relatively low for most of this period. That fact makes an amazing statistic even more amazing. Today’s doctors better understand the full extent of the physical and psychological injuries that dog bite victims must deal with. Moreover, dog bite attorneys have developed much better methods in dealing with these cases.
Yet the issue remains complex, mostly from an emotional standpoint. In most car crash cases, there is a “good guy” and a “bad guy.” A driver who crosses the median and collides with another vehicle is always morally at fault, even if there is a legal loophole that changes the outcome. But the dog bite environment is different. Millions of people own dogs, and many of these animals are large breed dogs that are genetically vicious. These individuals, rather understandably, do not want to be the “bad guy” if their animals attack someone.
Largely because of this environment, Georgia’s dog bite laws are complex to say the least. Nevertheless, substantial compensation is available.
Injuries in Marietta Dog Bite Cases
Most dog bite victims must deal with three kinds of injuries. Most people are familiar with the first two. But researchers are just beginning to understand the third area.
As mentioned, many people own large mastiff breed dogs, such as Rottweilers, pit bulls, and Doberman pinschers. When these dogs attack, they often lunge at the victim. That knockdown often causes broken bones and head injuries. These injuries are particularly severe among younger children and older adults. These age groups also represent the majority of Marietta dog bite victims.
Next, there is the bite itself. Many animals bite into their victims and then tear the victim with their jaws. These wounds are very serious and often require complete reconstructive surgery.
Finally, even after the physical wounds have mostly healed, the psychological wounds remain. Returning briefly to the car crash example, many of these victims go through psychological changes. For example, they might avoid certain areas of town for months or even years after the crash. But with regard to dog bite cases, the psychological trauma is much worse. In fact, many victims must endure Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-type symptoms, including:
- Heightened awareness,
- Flashbacks, and
- Unreasonable fear of animals.
Despite the name, PTSD is not a “disorder” but a physical brain injury. As such, it is permanent. Dead brain cells never regenerate. Although the injury is permanent, extensive therapy can alleviate the symptoms. So, most dog bite victims eventually will be able to function at work, school, and/or home.
Theories of Recovery
Georgia lawmakers have never overturned the common-law one bite rule. This venerable doctrine is based on an even older theory of recovery called scienter (Latin for “knowledge”). If the owner knew or should have known that the animal was dangerous and the animal attacks someone, that owner is liable for damages. Evidence of actual or constructive knowledge includes:
- Baring teeth,
- Aggressive barking, and
- Prior attacks against people or other animals.
Note that the one bite rule might also apply to dog walkers, veterinarians, and others who may have knowledge of the animal’s dangerous propensities. It does not matter whether the actual or constructive knowledge (knew or should have known) occurred in the seconds prior to the attack. If a dog growls at a victim and attacks a split-second later, the one bite rule probably applies.
As examined below, one bite victims may also need to establish additional elements laid out in the statute.
Georgia has an extremely intricate dog bite law. Section 51-2-7 of the Georgia Code holds owners liable for all damages if:
- Dangerous Animal: In addition to the evidence above, the dog bite statute has a per se element. An animal is presumed dangerous if a leash or other restraint law applied to that breed of dog. That’s almost always the case in Cobb County.
- Careless Management: The statute does not really define this phrase. Generally, however, careless management usually includes things like allowing the dog to be off a leash or a chain even if the dog is fenced in or indoors.
- Unprovoked Attack: Provocation is one of the most common insurance company defenses in dog bite cases, and this defense is examined below.
So, if victims use the dog bite statute, they must establish knowledge or violation of statute and careless management. We told you the law was complex.
The third theory of recovery is simple negligence. If you haven’t figured it out by now, “simple” negligence is not very simple. Actually, the elements of a negligence claim are fairly simple. Negligence is basically a lack of ordinary care that causes damages. But these claims are difficult to win because, as recently as 2001, the Georgia Court of Appeals said there was no such thing as a negligence dog bite claim in Georgia.
However, the Restatement of Torts clearly states that a person who “possesses or harbors” a domestic animal is liable for damages if “he is negligent in preventing that harm.” Furthermore, negligence claims fit in with modern notions of personal responsibility.
Insurance Company Defenses in Dog Bite Cases
Defense lawyers almost always claim that the victim provoked the dog. Many people, including many jurors, believe that “provocation” includes things like aggressive teasing or even nonthreatening sudden movements. But legally, “provocation” has a physical element. The victim must inflict so much pain on the animal that the dog’s violent response is legally justifiable. Typically, there must be more than one such incident.
Although it’s not listed in the statute, the assumption of the risk defense may apply as well. This common law doctrine has two elements:
- The voluntary assumption of
- A known risk.
On the surface, a “Beware of Dog” sign seems to invoke the assumption of the risk defense. But the sign is not enough. The defendant must also prove that the sign was visible, the victim could read it, and the victim understood what the sign meant. Even if all elements are present, the assumption of the risk defense may not be allowable, since it’s not mentioned in the law.
Work with a Tenacious Lawyer
If dog bite victims wade through complex Georgia laws, they may receive substantial compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Marietta, contact The Phillips Law Firm LLC. Home and hospital visits are available.