What should you do when your dog bites someone?
This scenario is one that many pet owners would prefer not to think about.
However, the truth is that even kind and gentle dogs can bite under the wrong circumstances.
As a pet owner, it’s your responsibility to be prepared for that possibility.
In this article, we’ll talk about how Virginia dog owners can protect their pets after a bite.
Remember that this article is no substitute for the advice of a trained legal professional.
In the event of a lawsuit or other issue, it’s important to contact a qualified attorney as soon as possible.
Step 1. Assist the Victim
In the event of a dog bite, your first priority should always be the victim’s safety.
After securing the dog in another room, provide any needed first aid to the victim.
Encourage the victim to seek professional medical attention and provide them with transportation as necessary.
Throughout this process, it’s important to remain polite and helpful.
However, remember that anything you say can be used as evidence if you end up in court.
For that reason, you should avoid admitting fault or commenting on legal matters at all.
Instead, remain focused on helping the victim in any way you can.
Step 2. Report the Incident
The next step is to call the local police.
You’ll want to explain the incident, answer their questions truthfully, and comply with any orders they give you.
If this was a repeat incident, or if the injury was very severe, the police may impound your pet.
Unfortunately, there is little you can do about this other than getting in touch with a lawyer.
Depending on the circumstances of the bite, the state may add your pet to the Virginia dangerous dog registry.
In that case, you will have 30 days to obtain a dangerous dog certificate from your local animal control officer or treasurer.
To do so, you will need to pay a $150 fee and provide evidence that your dog has been chipped and vaccinated for rabies.
You will also need to provide proof that you have a qualifying liability insurance plan.
If your dog had been classified as dangerous before the incident, it’s time to talk to a lawyer.
That’s because the owners of dangerous dogs frequently end up facing misdemeanor or even felony charges after a bite.
Step 3. Wait
In most cases it won’t be obvious that you need to talk to a lawyer.
The reason for this is that the majority of dog bites cases in Virginia are settled in civil court.
Given that the plaintiff has two years to initiate a lawsuit, it may be a while before you hear that you’re being sued.
In most cases, you can wait until you receive your summons to take any action.
Once you receive them, however, it’s time to contact your lawyer and start preparing a defense.
If your dog attacked someone or damaged their property, you might be subject to both criminal and civil penalties.
In this scenario, you might have to defend yourself twice.
Further, the conviction in criminal court could harm you in your civil trial.
Step 4. Understand the Law
To prepare a strong defense, you’ll need to understand how Virginia law treats dog bites.
In this way, the plaintiff in your case is likely to argue along one of two lines.
First, they may attempt to show that your dog displayed aggressive tendencies before the incident, and therefore falls outside Virginia’s “one bite rule.”
Alternatively, they may attempt to show that you acted negligently in failing to care for or control your dog.
Aggressive Tendencies and the One Bite Rule
The most important aspect of civil law as it relates to dog bites is the “one bite rule.” This is a very old common law that many states, Virginia included, still follow.
In essence, the one bite rule says that you only have civil liability for an animal bite if you knew that the animal was aggressive beforehand.
In most cases, this means that if your dog has never bitten someone before, you can’t be liable for the damage the first bite caused.
There are exceptions, however.
If the plaintiff can prove that your dog demonstrated aggression before the incident, the court may side with them.
Likewise, if your dog has bitten someone before, you will not be protected by the one bite rule.
Instead of trying to prove that the dog itself is dangerous, the plaintiff may instead attempt to show that the dog owner acted negligently.
This is the argument that the owner failed to show reasonable care in controlling their pet.
Also, if the owner did not follow the law, this can create a “negligence per se” argument.
Negligence per se arguments are particularly common for bites that occurred in public places, such as parks that have leash laws, and pet prohibitions.
This type of argument will rely on proving that you violated local laws or civil ordinances.
For example, the plaintiff might show that the bite occurred in an area prohibited to pets.
If they can do so, the plaintiff may well be able to argue that you showed negligence in allowing your pet into the area in the first place.
Many cities and counties also have “running at large” laws that you should take into account.
These are laws that require a dog to be under the control of their owner when not on the owner’s property.
“Control” usually means on a leash, but can also include voice commands.
In one of these localities, allowing your dog to “run at large” can create automatic proof of negligence.
Step 5. Prepare a Defense
Once you have been charged criminally or civilly, it’s time to put together a legal defense.
Working with your lawyer, you’ll want to show one or more of the following facts:
- That you were on your own property, and the person did not belong there.
- That you had no way of knowing your dog would bite (no aggressive tendencies).
- That you took reasonable care to prevent your dog from biting. For example, if you had your dog on a leash, or inside a fenced yard, you’ll want to use that in your defense.
- That the plaintiff was in any way responsible for their injury. This is “contributory negligence,” and in Virginia, it bars the victim from any form of compensation.
After you’ve prepared and presented your defense, the outcome of your case is in the hands of the court.
For this reason, it’s very important to present a strong argument in a clear, well-articulated fashion.
Fortunately, hiring a good lawyer makes this process much easier.
By hiring the right legal counsel, you’ll improve your chances of both winning in civil or criminal court and protecting your pet.