Since 2003, the average dog bite settlement has increased a stunning 94 percent. Better understanding of the injuries these attacks cause explains part of this increase. Increasing medical bills offer some explanation as well. After several years of decline during and after the Great Recession, medical bill inflation is rising again.
Moreover, specifically in Georgia, there have been some victim-friendly legal developments. In 2012, in response to a rising tide of animal attacks, Georgia lawmakers revised the state’s dog bite law. One of the most recent cases which interpreted this new law, 2017’s Steagald v. Eason, was truly a landmark decision. The Georgia Supreme Court significantly broadened the state’s dog bite statute, and by extension, the other theories of recovery available.
So, if you or a loved one has been the victim of an animal attack, now is an excellent time to connect with a Marietta personal injury attorney. Only an experienced and aggressive attorney knows how to properly evaluate your case settlement value and bring Georgia’s new dog bite laws and interpretations fully to bear.
Dog Bite Injuries
Most dog bite claims involve large breed animals, like pit bulls, German shepherds, and Doberman Pinschers. When these dogs attack, they often cause significant physical and emotional injuries.
These physical injuries are often gruesome. When dogs bite, their teeth cause both deep puncture wounds and severe tearing wounds. The puncture wounds usually cause internal bleeding that is difficult to control, especially in certain victims. The tearing wounds often require reconstructive surgery to correct. Even then, physical scars remain.
Emotional scars remain as well. Animal attacks often cause symptoms which resemble Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These symptoms include things like:
- Anxiety attacks,
- Trouble sleeping, and
- Unnatural fear of all dogs (heightened awareness).
Symptoms like these make it difficult, or impossible, to function at work, home, or school. Post-attack PTSD is especially prevalent among children, and these individuals make up a significant percentage of animal attack victims.
Your Claim for Damages
Georgia’s dog bite law is very complex. It essentially combines two different platforms, viz, the scienter (knowledge) rule, which is also called the one-bite rule, and negligence per se, or a violation of a statute.
If a “vicious or dangerous” animal attacks a victim, the owner or custodian may be liable for damages. Before Steagald, courts only accepted prior attacks against people as evidence of viciousness. After Steagald, courts accept a much broader range of evidence on this point, such as:
- Baring teeth,
- Snapping, and
- Aggressive barking.
In other words, if an owner sees signs that a dog may attack someone, the owner has a duty to control the animal. Owners who fail to do so are probably liable for damages.
As for negligence per se, most municipalities, including Marietta, have very broad leash laws, fence laws, and other animal restraint laws. If an owner violates such a law, and that violation substantially causes injury, the owner may be liable for damages. Unlike scienter, negligence per se does not require proof of viciousness.
Both these claims, especially scienter, may also involve third-party liability. Under Section 51-3-1 of the Georgia Code, landlords have a duty to maintain common areas safe. So, if an animal attack occurs in a parking lot, on a sidewalk, or in a green area, the property owner may be liable for damages. This liability assumes the property owner knew the dog was vicious.
Insurance Company Defenses
Assumption of the risk and provocation are probably the two most common insurance company defenses in dog bite matters.
If the attack occurs on the owner’s property, and especially if the owner displayed a “Beware of Dog” or other such sign, insurance companies almost always involve the assumption of the risk defense. This doctrine has two elements:
- Voluntary assumption of
- A known risk.
Warning signs make these elements easier to establish in court, but they do not automatically mean the owner is not liable.
The sign must be clearly visible. Small signs are difficult to see, especially if they are behind tree branches or other obstructions. Additionally, if the sign was in the front yard and the attack occurred in the backyard, it’s very difficult to prove the victim saw the sign.
Seeing the sign is not enough. The insurance company must also prove that the victim could read the sign and understand what it meant. This showing is quite difficult if the victim had limited English proficiency or was a young child.
It is also hard to establish the provocation defense if the victim was a child. In this context, “provocation” means more than sudden movements or even aggressive teasing. Instead, provocation is an intentional and a physical act. People do not “accidentally” provoke dogs, just like they do not “accidentally” provoke their siblings. Moreover, the physical act must be so intolerable that the dog had to respond violently. Poking the dog with a stick is probably insufficient.
Resolving a Dog Bite Claim in Cobb County
Medical treatment is always the first priority in these instances. Meaningful settlement negotiations cannot begin until medical treatment is at least substantially complete. Otherwise, a Marietta personal injury attorney cannot properly acces the case’s financial value.
If liability is reasonably clear, the homeowners’ insurance company has a legal duty to settle the claim in a few weeks. But there is almost always some question as to liability. So, in most cases, a fast settlement probably will not happen.
Mediation resolves many personal injury claims in Cobb County. A third-party mediator, who is usually an unaffiliated personal injury lawyer, talks to both sides in an attempt to forge a settlement agreement. Mediation also includes some brief legal arguments, so an attorney has a chance to frame the negotiations in a favorable way. If both parties negotiate in good faith, mediation is successful about 75 percent of the time.
Contact an Aggressive Lawyer
Dog bite victims may be entitled to significant compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Marietta, contact The Phillips Law Firm, LLC. We do not charge upfront legal fees in negligence cases.