Until recently, the courts of this state have declared that a dog owner whose negligence causes injury to a person cannot be held liable under Georgia law. This rule of nonliability has many flaws. First, it runs counter to modern American beliefs about personal responsibility. Everyone believes that dog owners need to be responsible with their dogs. Everyone believes that a dog owner who is irresponsible should bear the costs of injuries. “Blame the deed, not the breed,” dog owners say. “Put the responsibility on the other end of the leash, where it belongs,” dog owners say. But not in Georgia. The Georgia appellate opinions say that a negligent dog owner will never be held liable for hurting kids, neighbors or others. That is simply wrong and counter to our values.
Second, none of the Georgia cases that endorsed this rule of nonliability gave consideration to scientifically established knowledge about why dogs bite people. They do not bite because of having once bitten on a prior occasion. They bite because of factors such as heredity, poor socialization, poor training, and poor health, or because of abuses such as being kept chained. Furthermore, there are obviously dangerous situations that certain dogs should not be put into, such as the pit bull wandering through a day care center. The Georgia appellate decisions did not involve any such evidence, and yet the courts have continued to repeat a blanket rule that there are no consequences to dog-owner negligence in this state. In the legal profession, this is called “bad law.”
Third, enlightened Georgia judges have been speaking out against the harsh, archaic, and cruel Georgia dog bite laws. The past several years have seen many vicious mauling incidents in Georgia, including a number that caused the brutal deaths of innocent people. The state will not reduce dog attacks by maintaining a policy that negligently caused maulings are “okay.” To reduce vicious maulings, the courts must continue the shift in decisional law and the Georgia state legislature needs to enact a new dog bite statute — one that is in keeping with American beliefs about personal responsibility, as well as the true reasons why dogs bite people.
Until the legislature acts, Georgia’s trial courts will have to respond to the call to put the burden of canine-inflicted injuries on the dog owners rather than the innocent victims, who most frequently are either children or seniors. There indeed are signs that the judiciary is willing to change things for the better. In April 2006 Attorney Kenneth Phillips convinced an Atlanta trial court to permit a seriously injured dog bite victim to pursue a negligence claim against the owners of the dog that disfigured him. In a court action known as the Braeden Kelly Case, the dog owners’ insurance company attempted to obtain a summary judgment (i.e., judgment without a trial) that would have “thrown out” the victim’s lawsuit, which included negligence as well as statutory claims. After hearing argument from Mr. Phillips and the defense lawyer, the court denied the defendants’ request for summary judgment, most notably including the negligence claim. That brave ruling led to a mutually satisfactory settlement in August 2006. Upon request, Mr. Phillips will send all of the court documents related to that summary judgment motion to Georgia attorneys who represent dog bite victims. The case received extensive media coverage in April 2006.