To pet, or not to pet: Dog bite law in Virginia

The Legal Point

My three-year-old son, Bowen, runs to hug and pet every dog he sees. It doesn’t matter how big or how ugly, the boy loves dogs. My stomach clenches every time he runs toward a strange dog because I know that dog encounters sometimes have bad outcomes. And so, it is worth considering the aspects of the dog bite law in Virginia, both for the benefit of dog bite victims as well as dog owners.

“Every dog gets one free bite.” This is an oft-quoted phrase in dog bite law that still rings true in Virginia. This means that a dog owner is only liable if the owner knew or had reason to know that the dog has a propensity to cause injury. This is sometimes referred to as the “one-bite rule.” In other words, if a dog attacks someone, and there is absolutely no evidence on earth to suggest any aggressive behavior before the attack, the owner will probably not be legally liable. But if the dog has previously attacked someone, bared its teeth or snarled, then such evidence will likely be sufficient for the jury to decide if the owner is liable in court.

Prior acts of aggression can be proven in ways other than a prior bite incident. If the dog has displayed aggression at the veterinarian’s office (often noted in the vet records), such evidence can be sufficient to place an owner on notice. Testimony from neighbors or a mailman at whom the dog lunges, bares its teeth or snarls, can be used to establish that the owner either knew or should have known about the dog’s tendencies.

Also, many localities have leash laws. If the dog is out roaming free and causes an injury, the dog owner can be found automatically liable simply by violating the local ordinance.

Neutering is another issue. Someone who purchases or adopts a dog from an animal shelter, a humane society or some other type of “releasing agency,” as defined in the Virginia Code, is required by statute to neuter or sterilize the pet. Obviously, one of the benefits of neutering is that it decreases aggression. If the owner fails to sterilize the dog and the dog causes an injury, the owners can be said to have been negligent per se.

Local animal control officers are notified for most dog bite incidents. Often a “vicious dog” summons is issued to the owner. This requires the owner to come to court for a proceeding whereby the dog is deemed vicious. If this is the first incident involving the dog, the judge will often put the dog on “doggie probation,” which means that the dog will not be put down so long as there are no further problems within a period of time. If the dog has a track record of biting, the judge can order the dog to be euthanized.

We also have to discuss insurance. Homeowner’s insurance will often provide coverage and a defense in the event that a dog bite victim files a lawsuit for injuries. If you have a particular breed of dog that is known to be aggressive (e.g,. pitbull, Doberman, German shepherd), your policy might exclude coverage for such breeds. If you own a dog, you absolutely should let your homeowner’s insurance company know. I have seen instances where the homeowners did not advise the carrier that they owned a particular breed of dog, and when a lawsuit was later filed, the insurance carrier denied coverage. Injury claims involving dogs can be substantial, so you definitely want to have coverage in place if you own a dog.

Putting aside all of the legal issues, I have learned with my little boy that a little doggie etiquette goes a long way. It is always best to ask: May he pet your dog? You might be surprised to hear some people respond with “no, thank you, this dog is a little nervous around people.” Aren’t you glad you asked?

Joe Verser
About Joe Verser 3 Articles
Joe Verser is a partner in the law firm of Heath, Overbey, Verser & Old, PLC. He regularly represents both commercial and residential contractors in disputes, as well as homeowners and project owners. He can be reached at jverser@hovplc.com or at 757-599-0734.

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