Virginia Dog Bite Laws

If you have been injured in a dog bite incident in Virginia, or if you're an animal owner who might be facing a lawsuit, you need to understand the different state laws that could affect your case. In this article we'll look at dog owner liability for bites and other injuries, the role negligence plays in a dog bite claim, and possible defenses a dog's owner might raise when facing a dog bite lawsuit in Virginia.

Virginia's Dog Bite Law

Unlike many other states, Virginia does not have a specific dog bite statute. Instead, Virginia dog bite and dog-related injury cases are handled according to rules laid down in Virginia court cases over the years.

Virginia dog bite claims usually follow a "one bite" rule. Under this rule, a dog's owner may only be held liable for injuries caused by their dog if the owner knew or should have known the dog might act aggressively against a person or pet -- for instance, because the dog had bitten someone once in the past.

Despite its name, the "one bite" rule does not apply only to dog bites. It also applies to other kinds of harm a dog might cause. For example, if the dog is known for jumping on people, then a person who is injured when the dog jumps on her and knocks her down may decide to seek damages from the dog's owner.

Negligence and Negligence "Per Se" in Virginia Dog Bite Claims

If the dog has never injured a person before, a person harmed by the dog can still try to seek damages from the dog's owner in Virginia. However, in order to seek damages when the owner had no prior knowledge, the injured person will have to demonstrate that the owner had a duty to use reasonable care to restrain the dog, and that the owner's failure to meet this responsibility caused the injury. If the person who was injured can establish the dog owner' negligence in this way, then liability will also be established.

In some cases, the injured person might argue that the owner's behavior constituted negligence "per se" -- or negligence in and of itself, without any need for further proof. For example, suppose that a pedestrian is walking in a park one day when he is bitten by a dog. The dog's owner was walking the dog in the park but did not have the dog on a leash, even though city ordinances require all dogs to be on leashes while they are in the park.

Here, the injured pedestrian might argue that the dog owner's failure to leash the dog was negligence per se, because the owner violated the city ordinance. If the pedestrian wins this argument, he can show that the dog's owner should be held liable for damages related to the dog bite.

(A note: All dog bite claims in Virginia must be filed before the state's statute of limitations expires. Learn more about the time limits for filing dog bite lawsuits in Virginia courts.

Criminal Penalties for Dog Bite Injuries in Virginia

Code of Virginia section 3.2-6540 imposes criminal penalties on the owner of a "dangerous dog" whose animal causes injury or death to another person. If an owner's dog is listed on the state's registry as a "dangerous dog," and it causes harm, potential criminal penalties include:

  • conviction of a Class 2 misdemeanor if the dog "attacks and injured or kills" another person's cat or dog
  • conviction of a Class 1 misdemeanor if the dog bites or attacks a human, causing injury, and
  • conviction of a Class 6 felony if the owner or keeper of the dog "is so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life, and is the proximate cause" of the dog causing bodily injury to another human.
Criminal penalties may also be imposed for owners of dangerous dogs who fail to follow Virginia's rules for registering and keeping dangerous dogs.
If criminal charges are filed, a person who was injured by a dangerous dog may still file a civil lawsuit. Criminal charges are filed by local or state prosecutors, while civil lawsuits are filed by the injured person directly.

Defenses to a Virginia Dog Bite Claim

In a civil lawsuit involving a dog-related injury, the most common defense raised in Virginia is that of contributory negligence. In a contributory negligence claim, the dog's owner argues that the injured person was partly to blame for the injuries suffered.
For example, suppose that a child is teasing the neighbor's dog with a stick when the dog bites the child. The dog's owner may argue that the child provoked the dog, which led to the bite. In other words, by provoking the dog, the argument goes, the child contributed to his own injuries and should therefore not be allowed to recover damages.
In Virginia, contributory negligence is a complete bar to recovery. This means that if the injured person is found to be even one percent at fault for their own injuries, they are barred from recovering any damages at all. For more information, see What if I am partly at fault for my dog bite injuries in Virginia?

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