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New Dog Bite Case Law – Landlord Gets Off the Hook

The Supreme Court of Georgia decides whether a landlord can be held liable for tenant’s dog attack when the landlord failed to repair a broken backyard gate.

In Tyner v. Matta-Troncoso, S18G0364 (2019), a dog bite lawsuit, the Supreme Court of Georgia decided whether a landlord’s motion for summary judgment was erroneously reversed by the Georgia Court of Appeals when the landlords tenant’s dogs escaped from the backyard as a result of an unrepaired gate the landlord was aware of. Specifically, the lease provided that the tenants were permitted to have pets without any restrictions and additionally, the backyard was enclosed by a wooden privacy fence.

When the tenants had first moved in, the fence gate had a latch the secured it from opening. Sometime after, however, the latch became broken and it was conceded that the landlord was aware of this, although he failed to repair it. The tenants began securing the gate themselves, as it went unrepaired, tying a dog leash with weights around it and placing a cement block at the base to prevent it from opening. The tenants initially had a Labrador retriever that died and soon after got two pit bulls that the landlord was aware of. On the day of the attack, the plaintiff was walking her own dogs when the tenant’s two dogs escaped the backyard through the gate and attacked both her and her dogs. A neighbor called the police, who upon arrival fatally shot both of the tenant’s dogs and administered first aid to the plaintiff. Her injuries were so severe that she had to be airlifted from the scene to a hospital where she was provided treatment.

The state charged the tenants for violating OCGA § 51-2-7, that provides “any 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 another person who does not provoke the injury by his own act may be liable in damages to the person so injured.” The tenant pleaded guilty to all counts against him and the plaintiff then sought to additionally hold the landlord liable. The plaintiff claimed that the landlord violated OCGA § 44-7-14, which provides that with respect to third parties “the landlord is responsible for damages arising from defective construction or for damages arising from the failure to keep the premises in repair.” Specifically, the plaintiff claimed the landlord violated this statute by failing to repair the broken gate latch.

The landlord then filed a motion for summary judgment and the trial court held that although he breached his duty to keep the premises in repair, summary judgment should be granted because the plaintiff failed to provide any showing that the tenant’s dogs had ever displayed any vicious propensities or that the landlord had any knowledge of those tendencies.

The Court of Appeals then reversed the trial court’s decision that the landlord was entitled to summary judgment holding that the trial court was wrong in its determination of whether the landlord had knowledge of the dogs vicious propensities citing OCGA § 51-2-7 reasoning that because there was a local ordinance requiring vicious animals to be kept under restraint that was violated, the plaintiff was not required to produce evidence showing that the landlord was aware of the dogs vicious propensities. Further, the court concluded that under OCGA § 44-7-14, a landlord’s liability is not limited only to injuries occurring on the leased premises, but also those that arise from the landlords negligent conduct. Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether or not the plaintiff’s injuries arose from the landlord’s failure to repair the gate.

The landlord then appealed the Court of Appeals decision and the Georgia Supreme Court offered certiorari review to determine whether the Court of Appeals reversal was erroneous. The court first determined that the Court of Appeals incorrectly applied OCGA § 51-2-7 to the landlord because by its plain meaning, it applies only to “a person who owns or keeps a vicious or dangerous animal.” Therefore, because the landlord was out-of-possession and neither owned or kept the dogs, the statute does not apply to him. This error on part of the Court of Appeals was significant to their decision by applying OCGA § 51-2-7 to the landlord because the court was able to bypass the issue of the plaintiff’s burden to show that the landlord knew of the dogs vicious propensities. Given the plain meaning of the statute, however, this application was erroneous.

The above determination of the Court of Appeals application of law was not enough to resolve the case, however, because the Court of Appeals additionally held that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether or not the plaintiff’s injuries arose from the landlord’s failure to repair the gate. The Georgia Supreme Court, however, disagreed. The court provided that there was no question that the landlord had a statutory duty to “keep the premises under repair” and that he in fact breached that duty, however, causation could not be shown. The court explained that in order to show causation, the plaintiff must provide evidence that her injuries were proximately caused by the landlord’s breach and that in doing so foreseeability of the injury must be considered. Ultimately, the plaintiff must show that her injuries were a reasonably foreseeable result of the landlord’s failure to repair the latch, and to defeat his motion for summary judgment, she must show a genuine issue of material fact exist to that point.

Under Georgia law, dogs are not presumed to be dangerous, therefore, the plaintiff must present evidence that suggest the landlord had knowledge of the dogs temperament and viciousness in order to show the injury was reasonably foreseeable to the landlord. No evidence was provided by the plaintiff that the tenant’s dogs had ever displayed any vicious or aggressive behavior or caused any previous injuries and even if they had, the landlord was unaware. This knowledge was critical to the decision, because simply knowing that the dogs were kept on his leased premises is not enough to show that an attack was foreseeable as a result of his failure to repair the gate. The court ultimately held that because the plaintiff was unable to provide any evidence of this on part of the landlord, causation could not be met and as a result, there was no genuine issue of material fact. Therefore, the Court of Appeals decision was reversed and the landlord’s motion for summary judgment was ultimately granted.

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