Justice Sarah H. Warren, Supreme Court of Georgia. (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Justice Sarah H. Warren, Supreme Court of Georgia. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

The Georgia Supreme Court has thrown out a lawsuit against a landlord over two pit bulls that escaped through a broken gate and attacked a neighbor.

The unanimous opinion by Justice Sarah Warren released Monday reverses the Georgia Court of Appeals and reinstates Henry County State Court Judge Jason Harper’s summary judgment in the landlord’s favor.

The decision represents an important victory for Gregory Tyner, owner of the house on Ivy Trace in the Henry County city of Stockbridge, said his attorney, Kimberly Mowbray of Kendall Law Group in Douglasville. The ruling prevents the expansion of out-of-possession landowners’ liability regarding animals, she said.

Warren’s opinion means “the dangerous animal statute does not apply to anyone but the owner,” Mowbray said. “In this specific case, there wasn’t any evidence that even the dogs’ owners had any reason to believe that something like this was going to happen. It’s not fair to hold the out-of-possession owner liable.”

Still, Mowbray said, “it’s tough to be even on the winning end” of a case like this.

“At the end of the day,” Mowbray said, “you wish you didn’t have to be there in the first place.”

Matta-Troncoso was represented by Bruce Millar of the Millar Law Firm in in Jonesboro. He could not be reached for comment immediately.

Matta-Troncoso lives several blocks from the house Tyner had rented to Michael and Lakeisha Thornton, as Warren explained. Matta-Troncoso was out walking her dogs two blocks away on the afternoon of Oct. 24, 2013, when the Thorntons’ pit bulls broke loose and 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 shoot and kill the pit bulls.

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, Warren said.

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, Warren said.

Millar spoke at oral arguments in October about a broken gate latch that Thornton had been securing with a dog leash and a concrete block up until the day the dogs broke through. In the end, Warren agreed with the argument Mowbray advanced—placing the blame on the dogs, not the broken gate or the landlord.

“There being no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Tyner’s failure to repair the gate latch caused Matta-Troncoso’s injuries, summary judgment in Tyner’s favor was appropriate,” Warren concluded. “The Court of Appeals’ opinion reversing the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for Tyner is therefore reversed.”

The case is Tyner v. Matta-Troncoso, No. S18G0364.