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Georgia Supreme Court Issues Important Decision in Dog Bite Case

On March 6, 2017, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued an important decision in a case involving a serious dog biting incident.  The court unanimously reversed the decision by the Court of Appeals, which had dismissed the case in 2015.  The reversal means that dog bite victims no longer need to present evidence of a prior biting incident by the dog in order to take their case to trial.

In Steagald et al v Eason et al, Gary and Lori Steagald sued their neighbors, David, Cheryl, and Joshua Eason after a pit bull owned by Joshua Eason attacked Mrs. Steagald.  The dog, “Rocks”, was in the Eason’s backyard with Joshua when Mrs. Steagald came over to visit.  The dog was on a lead but was not restrained in its pen.  “Rocks” attacked Mrs. Steagald, biting and latching onto her arm.  While trying to get away from the dog, Mrs. Steagald fell and the dog bit her leg.  She sustained serious injuries as a result of the attack.  The Steagalds sued for medicals bills, injury, and pain and suffering.

The Steagalds relied on proof that the dog had snapped at both Cheryl Eason and Gary Steagald the previous week.  Mr. Steagald characterized the snapping incidents as attempted bitings.  They contended that this was enough evidence to conclude that the dog had a propensity to bite without provocation and should have been properly restrained.  The suit cited Georgia law O.C.G.A. 51-2-7 which in part reads, “A person who owns or keeps a vicious or dangerous animal of any kind and who, by careless management or by allowing the animal to go at liberty, causes injury to any person who does not provoke the injury by his own act may be liable in damages to the person so injured.”

The Easons filed a motion for summary judgment, contending they had no reason to know the dog was dangerous.  The trial court granted the motion.  The Steagalds appealed, but the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling.  The court concluded that the snapping incidents were not sufficient proof of knowledge of a propensity to bite, but were characterized as “merely menacing behavior.”  The case was next appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia, which reversed the decision.  The Supreme Court of Georgia concluded that whether the Easons had knowledge the dog had a propensity to bite without provocation is a question for a jury to decide.  This ruling allows the Steagalds to pursue their case to a jury trial.