Whatever the Georgia Supreme Court decides about who was liable for injuries caused when two pit bulls escaped through a gate with a broken latch, oral arguments Wednesday provide a cautionary tale for landlords.
Gregory Tyner, owner of the house on Ivy Trace in the Henry County city of Stockbridge, contends he was not responsible because it was the dogs, not his broken latch, that caused the injury to plaintiff Maria Matta-Troncoso. He asserts she was two blocks away on the afternoon of Oct. 24, 2013, when the pit bulls broke loose and ran.
Tyner’s lawyer, Kimberly Mowbray, struggled to make that argument Wednesday morning.
“The broken gate latch is not the cause of the dogs getting loose,” said Mowbray, who admitted the landlord knew the latch was broken and neglected to repair it. But she argued that the tenants had been securing the gate by tying it shut and putting a concrete block behind it. And she said Tyner didn’t know his tenants had pit bulls; he thought they had the black Labrador retriever they had when they moved in five years earlier.
Mowbray left out the Labrador’s unhappy ending. But it was revealed in the court’s summary based on the briefs: The Labrador escaped through the same broken-latched gate and was run over by a car. The tenants then adopted two pit bull puppies.
“He can’t have liability for a danger that he didn’t know existed,” Mowbray said of Tyner, arguing that the incident was not a foreseeable danger.
“I’m not sure I follow that logic,” Presiding Justice David Nahmias said. “Why is this not foreseeable?”
One reason the landlord couldn’t have anticipated the danger was the distance the dogs ran before they attacked, Mowbray said.
“A big part of your argument is, it was two blocks away and that’s just too far?” Nahmias asked.
Matta-Troncoso’s attorney, Bruce Millar, argued that he had met every burden required to bring the case to trial. He said they had proven that Tyner knew his tenants had a dog and that the yard’s gate latch was broken.
Matta-Troncoso lived several blocks from Tyner’s house, which he had rented to Michael and Lakeisha Thornton, according to the court’s summary. Matta-Troncoso was walking her two small dogs in the neighborhood when the Thorntons’ pit bulls ran toward her. One of her dogs fled. She picked up the other one protectively. The pit bulls knocked her to the ground and attacked. A neighbor immediately called police, who arrived within minutes. The officers tried kicking the pit bulls off her, but that didn’t work. To stop the attack, they had to fatally shoot both dogs, the document said.
Matta-Troncoso’s injuries were so severe that she had to be transported by helicopter to Atlanta Medical Center, the summary said. She was hospitalized for seven days and underwent several surgeries but was left with a disfigured face. Her reported medical bills totaled more than $140,000.
Matta-Troncoso and her husband first sued the pit bull owners, the Thorntons, for failing to properly secure the dogs and allowing them to run at large in violation of city and county ordinances. Then Matta-Troncoso added a separate claim against Tyner as the landlord, alleging he breached his duty to keep the leased premises in good repair so that the gate latch worked and that his negligence caused the injuries, the summary said.
The suit against the Thorntons remains pending. The appeal regards Tyner, who responded to the suit by filing a motion for summary judgment. Henry County State Court granted that motion, then the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Millar suggested he wouldn’t have to fight to get in front of a jury if the case had been based on some other kind of premises liability for landlord negligence. Said Millar, “One of the problems with this case is, it’s a dog.”
The case is Tyner v. Matta-Troncoso, No. S18G0364.