Virginia Dog-Bite Laws

A dog owner's liability for bites, the state's rules for dangerous dogs, and more

By , Attorney (UC Berkeley School of Law)

When a dog attacks someone in Virginia, state law determines what happens to the animal and what the consequences will be for the owner. Victims of dog attacks also turn to state law to when they consider filing a personal injury lawsuit. Understanding these laws is important for anyone who owns a dog or has been hurt by someone else's pet.

Dog Owners' Civil Liability in Virginia

Virginia's common law uses two rules for deciding when owners are responsible for injuries inflicted by their dogs:

  1. An owner who knew (or should have known) that their dog had dangerous tendencies is strictly liable for a victim's injuries.
  2. An owner who wasn't on notice of their dog's dangerous tendencies could still be found liable if they were negligent.

This approach holds owners of dangerous dogs to a higher standard but makes all owners legally responsible if their carelessness leads to a bite or other injury.

Strict Liability Under Virginia's "One-Bite" Rule

Virginia uses a version of the so-called "one-bite" rule, under which an owner is strictly liable for injuries caused by their dog if they knew the dog might be dangerous. Strict liability means that an owner is legally responsible even if they took all of the precautions a careful owner should.

Virginia doesn't have a statute explaining exactly what canine behavior puts an owner on notice, and judges have answered that question differently over the years.

Some courts have ruled that a dog has to injure, bite or attack someone before the owner becomes strictly liable for subsequent incidents. (Crocker-Sanford v. Landrum, 40 Va. Cir. 282 (1996); Smith v. Simmons, 89 Va. Cir. 213 (2014).)

But at least one Virginia court has said that an owner can be on notice even if their dog had never hurt or attacked anyone before. In that case, the judge suggested that strict liability could apply if a dog had done things—like snarling and baring its teeth at visitors—that would make a careful owner concerned that it might attack someone. (Burton v. Walmsley, 9 Va. Cir. 309 (1967).)

Liability for Negligent Dog Owners

Owners who weren't on notice of their dog's dangerous tendencies can still be sued for negligence.

To win a negligence lawsuit, the victim of an attack has to show that the dog owner was careless, and that this carelessness led to their injuries. (Butler v. Frieden, 208 Va. 352 (1967).). For example, if you're bitten by a dog that was roaming around off-leash, you could argue that the owner was negligent for failing to keep their pet under control.

It can be challenging for a victim to prove that an owner was negligent. For example, the owner of a dog that bites someone while off-leash could present evidence that their dog was well-trained, calm, and friendly towards strangers. That would help them argue that they weren't being careless just because they didn't keep their pet on a leash at all times.

Negligence Per Se for Dog Owners

Virginia uses a rule called negligence per se that can make owners automatically responsible for injuries caused by their dogs. Negligence per se applies when an owner violates a law designed to protect the public, and someone is harmed as a result. (Butler v. Frieden, 208 Va. 352 (1967).)

For example, if an owner was violating a local leash ordinance by allowing their dog to roam freely, that behavior is negligent per se in Virginia. The owner won't be able to argue that, all things considered, they were being as careful as they needed to be. A court will assume that any injuries caused by that dog are the result of the owner's carelessness.

Landlord and Condo Association Liability for Dog Bites in Virginia

A dog attack victim can sometimes seek compensation from the dog owner's landlord or from the condominium association where the owner lives. But the potential liability of landlords and condo associations is much more limited than the liability of dog owners. Keep in mind that:

  • Tenants, not landlords, are generally responsible for the safety of people they invite into their homes. (Walisser v. Harris, 81 Va. Cir. 14 (2010).) It's unlikely a bite victim would have a case against the landlord if the attack happened inside the tenant's rental unit or private, closed-off yard.
  • Landlords and condo associations can sometimes be liable for attacks in common areas like lobbies. But a victim would have to show that the property owners or managers should have been aware of the danger and didn't do enough to deal with it—for example, by ignoring complaints about a resident's aggressive dog. (McCarthy v. Fennessey, 87 Va. Cir. 143 (2013).)

Defenses to a Dog-Bite Claim in Virginia

A dog owner's best defense will often be that the plaintiff was at least partly to blame for their own injuries. This is a powerful argument in Virginia because the state uses contributory negligence in personal injury cases.

Contributory negligence 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. (Ponirakis v. Choi, 262 Va. 119 (2001).)

Provoking the dog. The victim of a dog attack could be held responsible for their own injuries if they provoked the dog by, for example, teasing or hurting it. A bite victim might also be barred from recovering damages if the dog was acting to defend its owner from a crime or other threat.

Trespassers. Also, property owners face less legal risk if their dog bites a trespasser. Virginia law generally assumes that people can't sue for injuries—including dog bites—that they suffer while trespassing. But you should know that a young child or someone else who just wandered onto private property accidentally might have a case if they're bitten.

Importantly, these defenses apply in negligence cases and in strict liability cases. Even owners who know their dogs are dangerous can argue that the victim's behavior, not their dog's dangerous tendencies, was the real cause of an attack. And, in strict liability cases, it's common for owners to argue that they had no reason to know their dog might be dangerous.

Damages in a Virginia Dog-Bite Case

When the plaintiff wins a dog-bite case, the court can require the defendant to pay damages. That means the dog owner (or their insurance company) must compensate the dog-bite victim for the harm they've suffered.

Plaintiffs seeking less than $5,000 in damages can bring a case in Virginia small claims court.

But keep in mind that there may be other options besides a lawsuit for seeking compensation. Depending on the situation, a victim could receive an insurance settlement or get money from the dog owner without having to sue.

If you've been hurt by someone's pet and aren't sure what to do, it might be helpful to consult with an attorney.

Virginia's Statute of Limitations for Dog-Bite Lawsuits

Virginia, like every state, has rules that require victims to file civil lawsuits before too much time has passed. Virginia's statute of limitations for most personal injury cases, including dog-bite cases, is two years.

It's always a good idea to bring a personal injury case as soon as you reasonably can. If you have concerns about the timing of your lawsuit, make sure to learn the details of Virginia's rules and consider speaking to an attorney.

Virginia's Rules for Dangerous and Vicious Dogs

If a dog commits a serious attack on a person or pet, a court can classify it as either dangerous or vicious. Either classification imposes significant consequences on both the dog and its owner.

Dangerous Dogs in Virginia

A dog can be classified as dangerous if a court determines that it:

  • killed or seriously injured a pet dog or cat, or
  • directly caused serious injury to a person.

(Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540.)

A dog can only be declared dangerous after a court proceeding. A police officer or animal control officer can start court proceedings (and sometimes impound the dog to protect the public) if there's been an incident that makes them think a dog might be dangerous. The incident has to be pretty serious—for example, it can't be a nip that only caused a minor injury. (Va. Code Ann. §§ 3.2-6540(C) and (F).)

Dogs don't have constitutional rights, but in Virginia a dog can't be declared dangerous unless it's proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Owners must be notified about the hearing in writing, have the right to ask for a jury trial, and get 30 days to appeal if they disagree with the outcome. (Va. Code Ann. §§ 3.2-6540.)

Dangerous dogs and their owners face strict requirements. Owners can be ordered to pay back the government for any money spent caring for a dangerous dog before the hearing. They can also be ordered to pay restitution to the victim of an attack. (This restitution doesn't mean a victim can't also sue the owner for damages). (Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540(I).)

Also, the owner of a dangerous dog must make sure that the dog is:

The owner must also buy liability insurance that can compensate victims if the dog attacks again. (Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540.01(B).)

Dangerous dogs are also subject to rules about how and where they're kept, including that:

  • the dog must be either indoors or in a secure enclosure when it's on the owner's property
  • the dog must be muzzled and leashed when it's off the owner's property
  • there must be signs at the entrances to the property warning of a dangerous dog, and
  • the owner must inform the authorities if they sell the dog or move with it to a new address.

(Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540.01.)

Virginia also requires owners of dangerous dogs to inform the authorities if there are any serious new incidents involving the dog, including escapes, attacks, and lawsuits over the dog's behavior. (Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540.01(E).)

Owners must register their dangerous dogs. Virginia's Dangerous Dog Registry allows anyone to see a list of all the dangerous dogs in a municipality or zip code, or to search for a specific dog by its name, tag number, or owner's address. (Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6542.)

Owners must submit a photograph and information about their dog to animal control so it can be included in the registry. A dangerous dog's registration has to be renewed every year, which requires the dog and the location where it's kept to pass an inspection by animal control. (Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6542.1.)

Owners of dangerous dogs risk serious consequences if they don't follow the rules. Animal control can impound a dangerous dog and ask for another court hearing if the owner fails to do everything they're required to do (even if they're trying their best). An owner who can't or won't follow the court's orders risks having their dog permanently taken away, and even euthanized.

There are even more severe penalties for a dangerous dog owner who deliberately ignores the rules. In that case, the owner might:

  • lose their dog
  • be barred from owning (or even living in the same home with) any dog, and
  • be convicted of a misdemeanor that could involve a fine and up to one year in jail.

(Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540.03.)

Vicious Dogs in Virginia

Classifying a dog as vicious is much more serious than classifying it as dangerous—Virginia law requires vicious dogs to be euthanized. Moreover, the owner of a vicious dog can be ordered to pay restitution to compensate victims for an attack. (Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540.1(B).)

A dog can be classified as vicious only if a court determines that it has:

  • killed someone
  • seriously injured someone, or
  • continued to engage in dangerous behavior after it's already been classified as dangerous.

While the classification is more serious, the rules for finding a dog vicious are very similar to the rules for finding it dangerous. For example, the authorities must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and an owner is entitled to a jury trial and an appeal. One important difference is that a potentially vicious dog will always be confined and kept away from the public until a final decision is reached. (Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540.1.)

When a Dog's Violent Behavior Can Be Excused

Not every attack can be used as evidence that a dog is dangerous or vicious. For example, if a dog was defending itself, a person, or its owner's property then that can't be used as evidence of dangerousness or viciousness. In addition, a dog generally won't be declared dangerous or vicious for attacking a victim who:

  • was intentionally trespassing
  • was committing a crime on the dog owner's property
  • was provoking or abusing the dog, or
  • had a history of provoking or abusing the dog.

(Va. Code Ann. §§ 3.2-6540(K) and 3.2-6540.1(C).)

Virginia Doesn't Single Out Specific Dog Breeds

Virginia, unlike some states, doesn't allow municipalities to target specific dog breeds (like pit bulls or Rottweilers) with bans or special regulations. State law also won't let a court classify a dog as vicious or dangerous just because of its breed. (Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540(K)(1) and § 3.2-6540.1(C).)

Criminal Penalties for Dog-Bite Injuries in Virginia

As we discussed in the previous section, owners can face misdemeanor charges if they fail to comply with court orders about their dangerous dogs. In addition, there are two situations in which an owner could be charged with a crime for an attack committed by their pet.

First, if a dog is already on Virginia's Dangerous Dog Registry, a new attack on an animal or person can result in misdemeanor charges against the owner. Depending on the attack's seriousness, the penalties could include up to one year in jail and thousands of dollars in fines. (Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540.04.)

Second, the owner of any dog (even one that's never attacked before) could face felony charges if:

  • the dog attacks and seriously injures a person
  • the owner's deliberate conduct was the proximate cause of the attack, and
  • the owner's conduct is so bad that it demonstrates a "reckless disregard for human life."

(Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540.1(D).) In the rare cases where owners are guilty of this kind of behavior they can be sentenced to 1-5 years in prison.

An owner can only be convicted of a crime if the government proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Help With Your Dog-Bite Case

Dog owners should know how state and local laws in Virginia apply to them and their pets, especially if they're facing a lawsuit or a dangerous/vicious dog hearing. In turn, people who have been bitten or otherwise hurt by a pet should know their options.

If you have questions about your situation—whether you're the owner or victim in a dog-bite situation—consider working with a local attorney who has experience handling similar cases.

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