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Common dog bite defenses and how to bite back

By John Singleton on October 15, 2020

After a dog bite or attack, the last thing you want to do is fight with an insurance company. You may be in a lot of pain, worrying about rabies, dealing with an injury, or just trying to keep your mind off the traumatic memory.

You understandably want your claim filed quickly, and the compensation owed to you paid. But what should be simple can become complicated if the dog’s owner or the insurance company tries to deny responsibility for your injuries. They often will use one of three common defenses: you provoked the dog, you were trespassing, or they had no knowledge or “notice” that their dog was a dangerous risk to others.

At GibsonSingleton Virginia Injury Attorneys, we have seen the trauma victims experience following a dog attack and we believe they deserve compensation for their injuries. However, dog owners often defend their pets, and some may even try to blame the victim. While you may worry that this will make your case more difficult, we as attorneys know how to respond to these arguments and get you the compensation you deserve.

What if the owner says it was my fault?

For many owners, dogs are family, and they can’t imagine a world where the dog would bite someone. This may push owners to deny liability in a dog bite claim, arguing that you provoked the dog, or that the dog was trying to protect them, or that they didn’t know their dog was dangerous.

This is especially common in attacks involving children, because in reality, the child may not have known how to act around a dog. A child may have pulled the dog’s tail or ignored its whines or growls.

But provocation is not a foolproof defense. Just as you have to demonstrate how the dog caused your injuries, the owner has to demonstrate how a victim provoked the dog. This can be difficult if the dog doesn’t have any defensive wounds, or if witnesses support your account.

In the case of a child who was bitten, the provocation defense does not apply at all. Virginia courts do not believe that a child can act with reasonable care, meaning that a child cannot be held responsible for their injuries. So even if a child was provoking a dog, the child is still eligible for compensation in a claim.

What if the owner says I was trespassing?

Many property owners use dogs as a security system, relying on their barks and growls to warn of danger. If someone trespasses on their property, the owner hopes their dog will scare the intruder away, or even attack a person who tries to harm the owner. This is a common scenario in small towns, as well as in cities.

So, if you were on private property when a dog attack happened, then you would need to show that you were legally allowed to be on the owner’s property. This typically applies to criminals, but it can also apply to neighbors who entered someone’s property simply to drop off a tool they borrowed or some misplaced mail.

What’s important to ask is if you had the implied consent of the owner to enter their property based on previous conversations. Also, if you were a maintenance worker, a contractor working on a renovation, or a package handler completing a delivery, you were likely just performing your job. These are important issues to consider because if the owner knew you could be coming by, or you were performing your duty as expected, then you could file a premises liability claim if his dog attacked you.

What if the dog’s owner claims she didn’t know her dog was a dangerous risk to others?

In Virginia, a person injured in a dog attack must prove that the dog owner was aware that her dog was dangerous. Often called the “one bite rule,” it protects dog owners who had no prior warning that their dog was prone to act aggressively and attack or bite someone. The theory behind the rule is that a dog owner who becomes aware his dog is dangerous and prone to injuring others must then take precautions and “reasonable care” to prevent his dog from hurting people. Preventive measures may include building a fence to prevent the dog from roaming the neighborhood and attacking residents, muzzling the dangerous dog, and always using a strong leash and keeping a distance from others when walking the dog. In some situations, a veterinarian will prescribe medication to curb a dog’s aggressive behavior, and in the most serious situations, when a dog has killed or maimed a victim, the dog must be put down, often upon the order of a court.

To prove that a dog owner was aware of the dog’s dangerous propensities prior to the attack on our client, we look for evidence in a variety of ways. Just after a dog attack, the dog owner often makes unguarded admissions about the dog’s aggressive behavior. In the stress of the moment, the dog owner may say something like, “I’m so sorry.  Are you OK?  Ranger bit the mailman just three weeks ago, and we’re not sure what to do to keep him under control.” The challenge is that once the dog owner realizes they may be dealing with an Animal Control investigation and possible legal liability, their initial statements and apologies may be conveniently forgotten.

We have also been able to secure statements by dog owners about the aggressive behavior of their dogs through their text messages or emails to the dog attack victim. Another source of this information is the dog attack victim’s neighbors. If there is a dangerous dog in a neighborhood, word travels fast; and we often learn of other dog attacks on neighbors that went unreported to Animal Control authorities.

Virginia also has a “Dangerous Dog Registry,” which is a public database available for search on the Internet to identify dogs that have been declared a “dangerous dog” in the court system. We check that database in every one of the dog attack cases we handle.

Finally, if we are unable to settle a case with a homeowner’s insurance company and we file a lawsuit against the dog owner, we have the ability to subpoena documents to strengthen our argument that the dog owner was aware of the dangerous nature of the dog. We may issue a subpoena duces tecum (Latin for “you shall bring with you”) requesting documents such as:

  • Veterinarian records showing the medical history and medication prescribed for a dog;
  • Law enforcement records, investigation reports, and photographs from Animal Control agencies;
  • Homeowners’ association incident reports and meeting minutes that may chronicle dog attacks;
  • Records of dog trainer sessions and obedience classes in which the dog may have acted aggressively.

Experienced, compassionate lawyers when you need help

Dog bite cases can be complex, which can scare victims away from filing one. But if a dog caused your injuries, and the owner acted negligently, you may be fully covered under their homeowner’s insurance policy. Everything from your medical bills to your lost wages can be included in your claim. If you have any doubt or questions about your case, you should discuss them with an experienced attorney.

We at GibsonSingleton Virginia Injury Attorneys know how difficult it can be to move past a dog bite or attack. Most people are under financial pressure to get medical bills paid and return to work. So, we don’t add to the burden. As Virginia personal injury attorneys, we work on a contingency fee basis. That means that we do not accept a dime from you, unless we win you compensation. And you do not pay any up-front legal fees. We also offer free consultations for dog bite victims to discuss their case and their questions.

To get help from compassionate, skilled attorneys, call us at (804) 413-6777 or toll-free at (855) 781-6777. We are here to help you.

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