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5 Dog Bite Defenses Within Virginia’s Legislation

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Dog DefensesIt’s estimated that there are roughly 80 million companion dogs in the United States.  That is over 80 million canine and feline family members and friends who share the couch with their owner, snag a bite of holiday dinner from under the table, and take walks in their bustling neighborhood.

Along with pet ownership comes responsibility.  Every year, some statistics estimate that 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs and 800,000 people are sent to receive medical treatment. The media and society tend to blame the dog for the attack.  However, there are often very valid reasons why a dog bites.  If a plaintiff sues you in civil court for money damages, or if the Commonwealth tries to have your dog declared dangerous, you and your dog may have options and defenses.

In a civil liability case, the plaintiff has to prove that your dog had dangerous propensities and that you knew about those propensities – what is commonly called the “one free bite” rule.  In dangerous dog proceedings, you may not get “one free bite” if the first bite is severe enough.  But Virginia’s dangerous dog statute, § 3.2-6540. Control of dangerous dogs has a host of defenses and exceptions (which may also be available to you in a civil liability case).

Here is an overview of five of the main defenses in Virginia’s dangerous dog statute and/or civil liability cases:

  1. If the bite occurred on the dog and owner’s property, particularly if the injured person was committing a willful trespass upon the premises occupied by the animal’s owner.

The first question to ask is where the dog bite occurred. If your dog bit someone on your own property, then an animal law attorney can determine whether or not the Commonwealth can even pursue dangerous dog proceedings against you and your dog – and whether a civil plaintiff can claim money damages from you.

For example, if you had a “beware of dog” or “no trespass” sign and the person still came on your property, then the injured person may be unable to recover damages from you – and the prosecutor may be unable to have your dog declared dangerous in court.

  1. If the injured person was aware of the risk of injury.

A second question to ask is the relationship of the person who was injured.  You may have a defense – particularly in civil liability cases – if the injured person works in the animal industry. A dog groomer, walker, kennel owner, or dog sitter is well aware of the risks associated with animals. If they are injured during their time on the job with a dog, they may be held responsible for whatever happens during that time.  A court may also decide that they assumed the risks of a dog bite based on their line of work.

  1. The dog was participating in lawful hunting or an organized, lawful dog handling event.

Another question to ask is what the dog was doing at the time of the bite.  If your dog was interrupted during a hunting event, dog show, or training exercise, then the fault may not lie on you and your dog.

For example, imagine you were at an agility trial and a person accidentally crossed into the agility ring while you were competing with your dog.  The injured person should have been aware of what they were doing, and may not be able to recover any damages against you – and a prosecutor may not be able to have your dog declared dangerous.

  1. If the injured person was committing a crime on the dog owner’s property

This is one defense that makes a lot of logical sense. If the injured person is trying to break into your home, rob your house, or is committing any crime on your property, then your dog will typically not be held accountable for that person’s injury.

If a person tries to break in and your dog attacks him or her while they are in your home or on your property, your dog is simply doing his or her job as a loyal companion. The plaintiff should have no case or claim against you for damages, and you have a solid exception available under the dangerous dog statute.

  1. If the injured person was provoking, tormenting, or physically abusing the animal, or can be shown to have repeatedly provoked the animal at other times.

If the injured person was provoking or hurting your dog, then you will not be held responsible for the damages. Imagine that your dog is in your yard and that careless neighbor is provoking your dog with a stick, poking him through the fence until your dog bites the neighbor.  Because of your neighbor’s provoking behavior, your dog will not be at fault. Dogs, too, have a fight or flight instinct, and in the face of injury and abuse, have every right to defend themselves. In these instances, you have a strong defense.

When your dog has bitten or injured another person, it can be a scary and overwhelming time for you and your family.  While your dog cannot speak for himself (or herself), an animal law attorney can. If you think your dog has a defense as to why he or she bit someone, contact an experienced animal law attorney today.

Photo Credit: Leslie Duss via Compfight cc

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About Heidi Meinzer

Heidi is an attorney and animal lover, not necessarily in that order. She handles small business, animal law, and nonprofit legal issues. She is licensed to practice in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Washington State. Heidi is also a certified dog trainer. Heidi Meinzer's Google+ Profile