Earlier this year, Attorney Chase Swanson appeared before the Georgia Supreme Court to fight for the rights of an 11-year-old boy who was attacked when an off-duty K-9 police officer failed to keep her dog restrained. In June, the Court delivered its opinion which unfortunately held that the officer was immune from suit.
The incident occurred in 2011, when the police officer failed to secure the dog’s kennel in the back of her personal truck. After the dog escaped, it chased down a neighborhood boy and attacked him in his friend’s yard. As a result of the bite, the young boy suffered several puncture wounds to his arm and required emergency medical attention. While the wounds ultimately healed, scars from the bite remain visible, and the boy suffered serious anxiety thereafter.
Georgia law holds most dog owners responsible for injuries caused by their dogs when they are not restrained properly. O.C.G.A. § 51-2-7 states “A person who owns of 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.” Consequently, the father of the injured child brought a legal claim against the police officer for negligence. The police officer’s attorneys argued that she couldn’t be held responsible because of “official immunity.” In Georgia, government officials are generally shielded from liability for negligence claims made against them. However, if a specific department policy or other statute mandates particular action in a particular situation and the employee fails to comply, immunity may be lost.
Attorney Swanson fought these arguments at every level and was successful in doing so at both the trial court and Georgia Court of Appeals. Those courts agreed that in this situation, the officer shouldn’t be immune from suit because the aforementioned statute and several local leash laws required the officer to keep the dog restrained. However, recently the Georgia Supreme Court issued its ruling in which those opinions were overruled. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that Georgia’s dog bite laws are not specific enough to overcome a K-9 handler’s official immunity. As a result, future innocent children and adults alike will have no recourse if a police K-9 handler negligently allows their dog to run loose and it hurts someone.
So if you live near a police officer with a K-9, know that they can and do sometimes get loose, they can and very well may attack you or your family, and you will have no recourse under Georgia law as it currently stands. There is no insurance to cover it, and the officer will not be personally held responsible.
Attorney Swanson will be working with local legislators in an effort to make changes that will hopefully prevent this from happening again, or at least provide a means of recovery for those unfortunately attacked like in this situation.