Jones et al v. Beebe (A19A1982)
Court of Appeals of Georgia
decided February 18, 2020
Even in our modern time of Amazon Prime, dogs still bite mail carriers. Maybe the nearly cliche aspect of this scenario — so well known that it is a sitcom and comic strip trope — edged slightly in the minds of the Justices on this Appeal affirming a denial of directed verdict on the question of punitive damages. Or, more likely, it was simply the clarity of the facts that led the Appeals Court to this conclusion.
Poor Angry Dog Management Bites Defendant
A mail carrier (the Plaintiff, Beebe) had packages to deliver to Defendant Jones’ house. The Jones’ had a dog who had previously bitten at least three people (including a FedEx driver). When Beebe approached the front door, the Jones’ youngest son emerged from the front door. After a brief conversation, Beebe returned to her truck, but before she could get in, she heard someone yell “no” and then found herself under attack by the Jones’ 57 pound boxer. She was bitten on the leg, arm, and hand, and it was only when the eldest son had appeared and pulled the dog off of her that she was able to get safely into her vehicle. Even then, the dog charged the car and she had to hurriedly roll up her car window.
She was covered in blood, and had a loss of feeling in her arm. Subsequently she had: a series of rabies shots, physical therapy, treatments to reduce scarring (ultimately abandoned as too painful, thus leaving noticeable scars), and counseling for nightmares.
Punitive damages, Directed Verdict and the Appeal
At trial, the court found the Jones’ liable for damages related to the injuries ($75,000), and also added punitive damages ($50,000). The Jones’ made a motion for directed verdict on the question of punitive damages alone, and this was denied. The Jones’ appealed this denial.
A motion for directed verdict means that the question at issue is taken away from the jury’s consideration, because there is “an absence of evidence or when no evidence supports an essential element of the case.” Canton Plaza, Inc. v. Regions Bank, Inc., 315 Ga. App. 303, 303 (732 SE2d 449) (2012). That is, a motion for directed verdict will be granted when there are no conflicts in the evidence as to [the] material issue, and the evidence […] demands a particular verdict.” Odom v. Hughes, 293 Ga. 447, 453 (3) (748 SE2d 839) (2013). The Jones’ argued that, given that the facts as they were, the question of whether or not punitive damages were available was answered “no” as a matter of law, and therefore should have gone to the jury for consideration.
As for punitive damages, these generally are available to a plaintiff when it is “proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” OCGA § 51-12-5.1 (b).
Thus, in the present case, directed verdict on the question of whether or not punitive damages is a jury question depends on whether or not there were evidential questions regarding the Defendants’ actions around controlling their dog. The trial court found that there was.
On appeal, the Court concluded the same. Defendants had clear knowledge that their dog was dangerous, and although they’d taken measures to prevent its causing harm, the facts were unclear as to whether or not those measures were sufficient or maintained. In addition to the FedEx driver, a neighbor had been bitten by the dog (again drawing blood). This led to the Jones’ going to “dog bite court”, and receiving citations that identified their dog as a “vicious dog.” The Jones’ sent the dog for obedience training. The dog also had to be muzzled while at the veterinarian’s office, and the dog bit an employee there: the vet, which while admittedly not uncommon for dogs at vet visits, shows knowledge of the animal’s behavior.
At home again, the Jones’ initially kept the dog locked in a room when guests were over. All of these facts show that the Jones were aware that their dog was a danger, and indeed that they had a responsibility to limit the danger.
And a little child shall … let the dog out
When the Plaintiff Beebe was bitten, the Jones Parents weren’t home, leaving their children to mind the dog. Further, the youngest son, who was present when the dog ran out of the house and attacked Beebe, had a brace on his knee. Thus his ability to control the dog was hindered. Finally, on that day the dog was not locked in a room, but in an area cordoned off by a baby gate. Facts again show awareness of the danger, but also the erosion of measures to prevent the dog attacking people, and thus a failure of duty. The parents (the Defendants) were irresponsible to leave a small child with a knee brace on to monitor the dog, and also not to make clear the need to keep the dog locked up.
The Standard for Punitive Damages is, at Least, Open to Question
The combination of the Defendants’ awareness of the dog’s nature to attack people, with their failure to take or maintain simple steps to prevent the attack at issue from happening combine to create a question for the jury regarding the Jones’ want of care, and indifference to the consequences. Here, too, the well-known “bad things” that can happen between a mail carrier and a dog perhaps also fed into the equation.
Taken altogether, the Court of Appeals found that the jury in the lower court case could question whether or not the Defendants had by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions showed “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” And, therefore the Court upheld the lower court’s denial.
The case shows how important the right facts are: information from a neighbor, a FedEx driver, a veterinarian, from a “dog bite court”, as well as all the details connected with the incident itself (the leg brace): all of these made this an easy decision for the Court of Appeals, and it shows great detail work on the Plaintiff’s part.