DUNWOODY, Ga. -- They are still terrified.
Two children -- bitten and scarred by what they describe as the neighbors' vicious pit bull -- sat down Tuesday afternoon with their parents in a law office in Dunwoody to talk with 11Alive's Jon Shirek about the worst day of their young lives, 15 months ago.
It was a frightening few moments in the front yard of their duplex apartment in Lilburn, and those few moments may now impact all of Georgia case law.
The boy, Ernesto Gurrola, Jr., who was 4 years old, had been playing outside with other children, and had just gone inside to get a drink of water from his mother.
"She gave me water, then I walked out, and then I saw the dog, and do like this [he raises his arm over his face].... The dog bite me, and that's it."
His sister, Yaire, who was 9, said she tried to help him.
"The dog came running toward me, and then he jumped and he bit my arm, my hand."
Their mother, Rafaela Carrillo, speaking in Spanish, said through an interpreter that she opened the door and saw the dog holding Ernesto by his shoulder and armpit, and the dog was tossing her son side to side, shaking him like a rag doll.
On Tuesday, Ernesto rolled up his sleeve and held up his arm, showing the deep scars around his shoulder and arm pit.
The parents and their children sued not only the dog's owners, who lived in the other half of the duplex, they also sued their landlords.
The family's attorneys are R. Keegan Federal, Jr. and Janet Litt, of Federal & Hasson.
"The landlord has a duty to his or her tenants to be sure that the common areas that are being used by their tenants are, in fact, safe for their use," Federal said.
Federal said it's a case that might set a precedent in Georgia.
Last week, Gwinnett County State Court Judge John Doran rejected a motion from the landlords' attorney to throw out the lawsuit against the landlords. Instead, Doran ruled that the parents' lawsuit against the landlords should go to a trial jury.
The landlords are Jose and Delis Aragon of Lawrenceville. They would not come to their door when 11Alive News asked to speak with them.
A woman who said she is part of the Aragon family opened the front door slightly and said, "They're actually unavailable... I will have them call you."
Their attorney, Paul L. Groth of Suwanee, did not return a message asking for comment, which 11Alive News left with his paralegal.
As for the dog's owners -- a husband and wife who now live in Atlanta -- they also did not want to talk about the incident or the case.
"OK, no. I'm fine," said Daniel Cowan as he answered, then shut his front door.
Cowan and his wife, Sarah Esperanza Arechiga, who have no attorney but are representing themselves in the lawsuit, said in court documents that the two Gurrola children "provoked" the always-calm dog into biting them. And the children, they said, "were not badly injured."
The landlords -- the Aragons -- said in court documents that they knew nothing about any so-called vicious dog staying with their tenants, Cowan and Arechiga, and that the incident was the fault of the parents and/or the dog's owners.
But the parents said they repeatedly complained to the landlords about the dog that ended up biting their children, as well as the other pit bull that Cowan and his wife owned.
And a neighbor, Karla Neptune, said she and others also complained about the two dogs, and that she even helped the Spanish-speaking mom call Gwinnett County Animal Control to complain.
"Everyone [in the neighborhood] was worried," Neptune said. "It's not right that the kids had to go through that."
"The landlords, here, do have a responsibility in addition to the owners of the dogs, themselves," Federal said, pointing out that the Aragons' leases with their tenants specified that dogs were not allowed, yet the Aragons, he said, did not enforce that.
"The landlord has a duty to his or her tenants," Federal said. "These people are tenants who are paying rent, in full and on time at the beginning of every month. The landlords are benefiting financially from these people living there, and they have a duty to be sure that the common areas that are being used by their tenants are, in fact, safe for their use. And that 'safe for their use' can include not only being sure that there are no potholes that they might step into and break an ankle, but also that other tenants do not harbor, keep, own, maintain vicious animals on the property who are going to attack the other tenants."
Federal hopes that the case will "send a very loud and strong message to all those other dog owners and landlords, so that they will... protect their tenants and neighbors and children who live in proximity to these vicious animals... Landlords are going to be held responsible for failing to keep the common areas that they rent to their tenants safe in every respect, including safe from the attacks by vicious animals owned by their tenants."
"These landlords had 10 months notice of our clients' fear of these pit bulls" from the time they rented half of the duplex, in 2010, until the incident in February, 2011, said Attorney Janet Litt. "Knowledge is one of the very significant issues... The Gwinnett County ordinance talks about having dogs that are unrestrained, and the person who either owns the dog, possesses it, or harbors the dog will have liability for that. And there is no law in Georgia that addresses this. Not even closely. And there are other cases in other states that are now talking about the fact that 'harbor' can mean a landlord that has knowledge."
The Gurrolas decided not to pursue filing criminal charges against the landlords and the dogs' owners partly because they said they did not trust authorities to prosecute the case since, they said, Animal Control failed to help them prevent the incident.
As for why the Gurrolas didn't move out, despite their one-year lease, they said the landlords repeatedly told them they were going to make the dogs' owners get rid of the dogs.
Here's what the Gurrolas' neighbor, Karla Neptune, said on Wednesday about her memory of the Feb., 2011 incident and the neighborhood's worries about the two pit bulls:
I remember the mom coming out screaming, and everyone running crazy all over the neighborhood, and the kids were just screaming. The little girl was trying to help her baby brother because the dog had originally attacked him, Junior. And Shorty kind of tried to help him to defend him, and the dog ended up biting her, too.
I mean the two children, actually, after everything happened, they just stopped coming outside, they were so scared. Every time they saw a dog in the neighborhood they would run in the house. They could be playing in the neighborhood, and within seconds, if they saw a loose dog in the streets they would be running...
The day that it happened there were a lot of children out here.
My kids are 7, 5, 4 and two.
Everyone was worried. I called Animal Control. I actually called Animal Control on [the dog owners] before.
Many nights I come home from work at 11 at night, and that dog scared me.
Before Shorty [and "Junior"] got bitten, her mom and I actually called Animal Control about it before.
I'm one of the people that actually assisted her in calling Animal Control.
They came here and instead of them rectifying the problems for us, what they did was they issued the whole neighborhood code enforcements on things that didn't have anything to do with animals. That's what our neighborhood experienced the last few months... Gwinnett County comes here, and they don't take care of the dogs.
(The dog that mauled those two kids could have hurt your kids?)
Yes they could have. Yes they could have. At any time. Because that person that owned those dogs did not keep those dogs on a tight leash.
I think that's a good thing [that the landlords are being sued]. Because Shorty and her brother did not, they didn't deserve to go through what they went through. And the trauma that they experienced afterwards, I experienced it myself watching them, the kids were frantically afraid of coming outside, they were scared of animals.
When those dogs bit, that dog bit, those kids were scared. And their mom was scared.
It's still there [the children's fear]. Yeah, it should be because of the way it happened. She was defending her baby brother because she saw a dog attacking him.
And if you saw Junior's arm, it looked so horrible, he got bitten so badly, and Shorty's hand was all bit up. It's not right that the kids had to go through that. And someone has to be held accountable for something at some point in time. They shouldn't have to be afraid and traumatized from something and just be left alone and left to deal with it on their own. It's not fair.
Quoting from the dog owners' written answer to the lawsuit againt them:
Cowan and Arechiga always kept the dogs on a leash when taking them outside.
The dogs were not vicious and showed no propensity whatsoever to be aggressive.
[On the day of the incident two visitors went outside for a smoke]... They thought they had sufficiently closed the door. However, the door was apparently left ajar, and one of the dogs pushed the door open and ran outside.
The dog sat down on the sidewalk leading to the [duplex's] front doors. Plaintiff Ernesto Gurrola, who was not being supervised, then walked around the railing toward the dog and reached out for him. That is when the dog bit him. Sarah Arechiga immediately yelled at the dog, who stopped the bite and [the dog] ran away.
[Ernesto's sister] Yaire Gurrola came running from across the street and stopped in the driveway between the two cars crying and screaming. That is when the dog scratched [her].
[The children] provoked the bite and are guilty of comparative negligence.
The fact is that the incident was accidental. Cowan and Arechiga feel badly about the unfortunate incident. However, Cowan and Arechiga maintain the [children] were not badly injured.
The lawsuit demands payment for compensatory and punitive damages, but does not mention a dollar amount.
A trial date has not, yet, been set.