A Henry County landlord cannot be held liable for vicious attacks on a woman by pit bull mixes that had escaped the fenced-in backyard of his rental property, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In a unanimous ruling, the high court overturned a prior decision by the Court of Appeals that had allowed the claims against homeowner Gregory Tyner to go to trial.
In December 2008, Tyner began renting out his Stockbridge home to Michael and Lakeisha Thornton. A few months later, the latch to a gate on the backyard fence was broken. The latch was never repaired, and the Thorntons began securing the gate by tying a dog leash around it and putting weights and a cement block at the base of the gate.
On Oct. 24, 2013, Michael Thornton secured the gate as he usually did before leaving his two pit bull mixes unattended in the backyard. But the pit bulls later escaped and attacked the two dogs being walked by Maria Matta-Troncoso a few blocks away. One of Matta-Troncoso’s dogs fled. But when she tried to defend her other dog, Thornton’s dogs knocked her to the ground and began mauling her.
A neighbor called 911 and a police officer who arrived at the scene shot and killed both dogs. Matta-Troncoso was airlifted from the scene and taken to Atlanta Medical Center. Her face was disfigured from the attack and she underwent several surgeries, racking up more than $140,000 in medical bills, according to court records.
When police arrived at the Thorntons’ residence, they found the leash still hanging from the top of the gate where it had been tied to the fence. Michael Thornton was later charged with violating four counts of Henry County ordinances, such as failing to keep an animal under restraint and allowing an animal to become a public nuisance. He pleaded guilty to all charges.
Matta-Troncoso and her husband initially sued the Thorntons for damages. They also sued Tyner for failing to keep his rental property in repair.
In allowing the case to go forward against Tyner, the Court of Appeals erroneously presumed Tyner was aware that the Thorntons’ pit bulls had a propensity for vicious behavior, Justice Sarah Warren wrote in Monday’s high court ruling. But there is no evidence that the dogs displayed aggressive behavior before the attack or that Tyner knew the dogs had an aggressive temperament, Warren said.
Matta-Troncoso also had to show that her injuries from the dogs’ attack were a reasonably foreseeable result of Tyner’s failure to repair the latch.
But Georgia law does not presume that dogs are vicious and “we see no evidence that the Thorntons’ dogs had aggressive tendencies or that they had injured anyone in the past, let alone that Tyner knew of those things (if they had indeed been true),” Warren said.
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