Serving as a personal injury attorney on cases involving dog bites can sometimes leave people thinking that perhaps I’m not a “dog” person.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our family has rescued 2 dogs ourselves and one, Maybelle, has become a member of our family, almost like a 4th child!
We love dogs. That’s why we try to educate dog owners on their duties to properly control their dog, so no one gets hurt and the police don’t have to come and take the dog away.
It’s often said that Virginia law follows the “one-bite rule”, suggesting that a dog owner isn’t liable the first time hisa dog bites someone. In other words, the dog gets a “free bite”, so to speak.
But this is not really an accurate description of Virginia law.
Evidence of prior aggressive behavior can be enough to prove liability, even without a prior bite.
Your Responsibility as a Dog Owner
Failing to control your dog or recognize aggression can result in serious liability if your dog does in fact bite someone. In legal jargon, this is referred to as your “common law duty” in the state of Virginia.
The “duty” in this case requires:
- Being aware of your dog’s behavioral tendencies
- Taking reasonable steps, based on your awareness of your dog’s behavioral tendencies, to control your dog and keep others safe
This means that, if your dog has aggressive tendencies but has not yet bitten someone, your dog’s demonstrated aggression can still make you liable if you don’t take reasonable precautions to prevent those tendencies from resulting in a bite or an attack.
Case Story #1
A few years ago, we settled a case for a young lady who was severely injured in a dog attack.
The dog lived at a house near her bus stop. Every time she would walk past the other house, or out to the bus stop, the dog would run to the fence, bark and growl at her, and aggressively jump at the fence as if he were trying to get at her.
One morning, not long after she arrived at the bus stop, the dog escaped through a hole in the fence and attacked her, biting her several times, causing serious wounds. It took a kind, retired police officer who sprinted from another bus stop two blocks away, to get the dog off her!
This dog had never bitten anyone before this attack, but it’s prior history of aggression, recounted by several neighbors, was enough to convince the owner’s insurance company that the owner should’ve done more to prevent the dog from escaping and attacking this young girl.
Client Story #2
Here’s another true story to illustrate:
Another client worked as a maid for a family with 3 pit bulls. She got along alright with 2 of the dogs. One of the dogs, though, didn’t like her at all and would bark, growl, and lunge at her any time she was around. Sometimes, that dog’s aggressive behavior would get the other 2 dogs fired up as well.
The owners usually put the dogs outside when our client came to clean their house. But one day, while our client was taking the trash out, the aggressive pit bull got loose and attacked her in the driveway.
Fortunately for her, a nearby construction worker helped pull the dog off her and managed to get her into a vehicle until authorities arrived, but not before the dog caused severe injuries to her arm.
As in the other case, this was the first actual attack by the dog, but, because of the dog’s prior, demonstrated aggression, the insurance company recognized that the owners should still be responsible for the serious pain and suffering our client suffered.
Your Dogs Are Your Responsibility
So please don’t assume that just because your dog has never bitten anyone, that this kind of thing can’t happen to you.
Learn to recognize aggressive behavior and please do everything you can to train and control your dogs so that people and other dogs don’t get hurt.
Remember, if you don’t take reasonable steps to control your pet, you can be held liable and your dog can be punished; and no one wins when that happens.