Evaluating Dog Bite Claims in Virginia: The “One Bite Rule”

By: Christopher J. Toepp – Fredericksburg Personal Injury Attorney & Egena Younger

Virginia is known for its rich history and traditions. Those roots stretch back to the founding of our county. For many residents, the Commonwealth’s past is a source of pride even as Virginia continues to grow, modernize and evolve. It is important to remember that some of Virginia’s laws have not evolved as quickly as our modern way of life.  One such example is the law that pertains to dog bites.

Historically, most Virginia dogs lived outside, roaming the streets unrestrained and with abandon.  Even today, there is no state-wide requirement that dogs be held inside a fenced yard or restrained on a leash while outside. Instead, the legislature has empowered each of Virginia’s localities with the discretion to implement individual restrictions for dogs running at large.[1]

Virginia also adheres to the “one bite rule,” a doctrine which dates back to pre-colonial England. Under the “one bite rule,” a dog owner is not legally responsible to pay for damages resulting from their animal’s first bite or attack, no matter how much harm the bite inflicts. The rationale behind this law is that the dog owner has no notice that their animal is dangerous. Accordingly, the owner is not negligent for failing to restrain their animal prior to the first attack.

Many people believe that the breed of animal is dispositive when evaluating a potential dog bite claim.  Over time, Pitt Bulls, German Shepherds, Dobermans and Rottweilers have developed a reputation for ferocity. No one is surprised when they hear about an attack involving these breeds. The “one bite rule” is not breed specific. It applies to every type of dog in the Commonwealth.

Other people believe that the extent of the injury determines whether a claim will succeed. Tragically, we often hear about young children or even adults suffering terrible injuries when dogs attack. Unfortunately, the nature of the injury is also irrelevant to the one bite determination. An analysis as to whether the dog owner was negligent – whether they had notice that their dog was dangerous - always comes before damages are evaluated.  

Although Virginia’s dog bite laws may appear antiquated, they do not preclude every person injured from a dog bite from obtaining a civil recovery for their damages. If the locality in which the dog bite occurred has enacted a leash or restraint law, a violation of that requirement may permit recovery even on the first bite. Many localities, apartment complexes and public areas also have restrictions against ownership or possession of certain dog breeds. If the attack violates these requirements, recovery may also be possible. Even if a previous attack was not reported to authorities, thorough investigation may reveal that the owner knew the dog was dangerous.  

If you or someone you know is injured by a dog in Virginia it is very important to examine the specific facts, circumstances, local ordinances and restrictions that apply. The experienced personal injury attorneys of Allen and Allen regularly deal with dog bite cases and are happy to provide a free consultation to determine whether recovery for a person injured by a dog bite can be obtained.  In Virginia these claims are often more complicated than people might imagine.      

[1] See Virginia Code § 3.2-6538 available online at: http://www.lawserver.com/law/state/virginia/va-code/virginia_code_3-2-6538 .

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