Proving liability where the dog did not previously bite a person in Georgia

The “first bite free” rule is a misnomer, because the victim of a dog bite in Georgia is required to prove only that the owner or harborer knew that the dog had done something which would indicate that it had the dangerous tendency to bite people. See Steagald v. Eason (2017) 797 S.E.2d 838 (2017, Ga. Supreme Ct.). So the doctrine and the Georgia dog bite statute can apply to cases where there was no bite but where the owner or harborer should have known the dog was vicious. 

In cases where the dog bit somebody while running loose in violation of a leash law, the statute makes the dog owner legally liable if the accident was caused by the owner’s careless management or allowing the dog to go at liberty. First, the victim must prove the condition state in the second sentence of section 51-2-7, which says, “In proving vicious propensity, it shall be sufficient to show that the animal was required to be at heel or on a leash by an ordinance of the city, county, or consolidated government, and the said animal was at the time of the occurrence not at heel or on a leash.” For example, the local law might state that all dogs must be confined on the premises of the dog owner or must be on a leash when not on the owner’s premises. Next, the victim must show that the accident was caused by the owner’s “careless management or … allowing the animal to go at liberty.” An example of careless management would be the failure to close a door through which the dog could escape. An example of allowing the animal to go at liberty would be the practice of letting children in the household routinely take the dog outside to play, without a leash. Thus, liability for a dog bite can be based on the violation of a leash law combined with careless management or allowing the dog to go out without a leash.

Interestingly, Georgia is the only State that gives the negligence per se doctrine such significance. Also, it is the only state that puts a “trimmed down” version of the traditional negligence per se doctrine into its dog bite statute. An example of liability under this part of the Georgia statute would be where the dog owners routinely allow their dog to go outside without a leash, in violation of a local animal control law which required all dogs to be leashed, and one day the dog runs up the block and bites a small child playing in a neighbor’s driveway. That accident would put liability squarely on the shoulders of the dog owners, for violating the animal control law. In other states, the victim would be required to go outside the statute and prove the various elements of negligence per se, but the Georgia statute includes the elements as part of the statute.