Proving liability where the dog had the dangerous tendency to bite in Georgia

Except for violations of local leash laws, section 51-2-7 essentially codifies the “one bite” rule, with some narrow exceptions that favor the victim in certain circumstances. The “one bite” rule (also called the “first bite” rule) is the ancient, judge-made principle that an animal owner, including a dog owner, cannot be held liable for injuries caused by his animal unless the owner was aware that the animal had a dangerous propensity to cause such injuries. “Georgia has traditionally adhered to the “first bite” rule, which holds dog owners liable for their animal’s behavior only if an owner knows that a dog has the ‘propensity to do the particular act [biting] which caused injury to the complaining party.'” Clark v. Joiner, 242 Ga. App. 421. Therefore, to establish liability under this part of the Georgia statute, the victim must prove that the dog owner knew or should have known of his dog’s propensity to do the particular act which caused the complained of injury.  Hamilton v. Walker, 235 Ga. App. 635 (510 S.E.2d 120) (1998); Durham v. Mooney, 234 Ga. App. 772, 773 (507 S.E.2d 877) (1998).

Georgia courts have wrestled with the degree of knowledge that is required. Appellate decisions in dog attack cases establish that the standard is one of constructive knowledge, based on the owner’s superior awareness of his dog’s temperament. The victim must prove that (a) the dog previously acted viciously on one or more occasions (neither an actual “bite” nor a human “target” are required), and (b) the owner or keeper should have known that the dog might someday bite someone.

For example, in Supan v. Griffin, 238 Ga. App. 404 (1999), a case involving a bite on the owner’s premises, it was held that the true test of liability is the owner’s “superior knowledge of his dog’s temperament.” Supan’s dog had previously attacked a dog belonging to one Keller, and threatened the man with “bared fangs, vicious growls and attack behavior.” When Keller told Supan, the latter acknowledged that his dog was “a problem.” There was no prior bite victim. Nevertheless, these facts were sufficient to establish a triable fact as to Supan’s prior knowledge of his dog’s vicious propensity.

Likewise, in Thurmond v. Saffo, 238 Ga. App. 687, 688 (1999), liability was based on a single prior act of the dog. That act consisted of barking and walking slowly toward a woman named Webb, with something alarming about his eyes and tail. There was no growling, and no snapping. Webb later told the defendants that the dog had barked at her, and that she thought he would attack her. On the basis of that single incident, and the single warning given to the defendants, the appellate court reversed a directed verdict for them.

Similarly, in Sanders v. Bowen, 196 Ga. App. 644, 646 (2) (396 SE2d 908) (1990), it was held that, to prove knowledge of viciousness, it was sufficient to demonstrate that the dog had “habits of aggressiveness and attack which common sense says would not be confined to inanimate objects” despite no previous biting of humans. In that case, the dog was in training to be a fighting dog. It had never bitten a person, but its jaws could hold onto a two-by-four board and pop open a basketball.

Therefore, a dog bite victim needs to prove simply that the owner or handler reasonably should have known that his dog had the tendency to bite, based on a single prior incident of viciousness, which did not have to be a prior bite.