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What Evidence Is Necessary To Establish Punitive Damages?

The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s denial of partial summary judgment and motion for directed verdict related to punitive damages in the recent decision of Jones v. Bebee, --S.E. 2d ---, 2020 WL 771117 (2020). The Court noted that the entry of the judgment at trial, mooted the motion for summary judgment filed by the Joneses and only addressed the denial of the motion for directed verdict.

Bebee, a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier, delivered a package to the Jones’s house. Jones’s 11 year old son accepted the packages, but as he went back into the house, the Jones’s dog rushed out and bit Bebee on the leg. Bebee was able to get the dog off her leg, but the dog lunged and bit Bebee on the arm and hand. Jones’s 19 year old son was able to grab the dog and take it back inside. The Joneses were not home at the time of the incident. Bebee sustained injuries to her leg, arm, and hand and was required to undergo a series of rabies shots.

The Joneses contended Bebee could not show that they acted with the requisite want of care or conscious indifference necessary to entitled Bebee to punitive damages. In their motion, the Joneses contended that they had a designated area for the dog when visitors arrived (locked between two baby gates) and had a beware of dog sign posted. The Court of Appeals noted that there was evidence that the Joneses did act with the requisite want of care or deliberate indifference due to the prior incidents and the failure to take adequate steps to prevent the dog from biting Bebee. The Court of Appeals indicated there were at least two other incidents where the dog had bitten people.

In the first incident, a FedEx delivery driver had been bitten after the dog crossed the invisible electric fence. The Joneses claims that after the first incident they increased the shock on the dog collar and bought a “beware of dog sign.” In the second incident, a neighbor was bitten on the hand. The neighbor testified she never saw a beware of dog sign and the dog crossed the invisible fence without trouble. The Joneses signed the dog up for a few weeks of aggression training. In both incidents the Jones were cited for their aggressive dog. The Court of Appeals also noted that a veterinarian technician had also been bitten by the dog, but the technician testified it was not unusual for dogs to be scared under the circumstances.

The Court of Appeals noted “a motion for directed verdict should not be granted when there are even slight material issues of fact.” The Court of Appeals found that though the Jones had taken some steps to control the dog, the Jones failed to “directly and effectively address the dog’s aggression issues.” Thus, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s denial of the Joneses motion for directed verdict.

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