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When a dog bites in Virginia, should you call a lawyer?

By John Singleton on August 23, 2018

Dogs are “man’s best friend.” Between our team members at GibsonSingleton Virginia Injury Attorneys, we own a pack of lovable canines.

But we can’t forget that dogs are descendants of wolves, carnivorous predators that roamed Virginia only 100 or so years ago. Because of this ancestry, modern dogs have powerful jaws and sharp teeth that are designed to rip flesh from bone.

Even small dogs, such as dachshunds and terriers, were bred to kill animals like badgers and rats. That’s why a bite from even the most domesticated dog can be extremely painful, and cause permanent injury or worse. We all remember the tragic attack in Goochland County that made headlines across the country last year.

How common are dog bites, and who gets bitten?

The United States has approximately 90 million pet dogs—that’s more than one-third of all households. Dogs attack approximately 4.5 million people each year, and one of every five victims requires medical attention, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Virginia released a dog bite fact sheet reporting that more than 4,000 people were bitten in 2007.

Sadly, more than 31 percent were children under 14—most between 5 and 9. Many children don’t know not to approach a strange dog, and they may try to play with a dog that’s being aggressive. The majority of children bitten suffered injuries to the head, neck, and face.

Usually, victims are familiar with the dog that bit them. That can make things awkward when you have to go to the hospital, and the bills start piling up. Should you ask the dog’s owner for money? Will it ruin your relationship? Is it worth asking?

Well, maybe. If you or your child are bitten by a dog, you may have grounds for a personal injury lawsuit against the dog’s owner. If the wounds are serious, you should file that claim as soon as possible!

What are Virginia’s dog bite laws?

Virginia has what is commonly referred to as a “one-bite rule.” This means that a dog’s owner can be held liable only if he knew his dog bit someone before, or he knew that his dog had aggressive tendencies. If the dog has snapped, lunged, or behaved in any aggressive way toward another person or animal before, that would be proof of aggressive tendencies and negate the one-bite rule.

Still, Virginia differs from most states that have “strict liability” regarding dog bites. Strict liability means that a dog’s owner can be held liable for a dog bite, EVEN IF the owner had no knowledge that the dog bit someone in the past, or had a tendency to be aggressive.

It’s important to know that Virginia allows a person injured by a dog to hold the dog’s owner liable for the resulting injuries. Injuries are not limited to bites. If a dog knocks a person down and breaks the victim’s bone, the owner can also be held liable.

In some cases, the dog’s “keeper” may be liable as well. A keeper is someone who had legal possession or control of the dog at the time of the attack. For instance, a paid dog walker would be considered the dog’s keeper while she had possession of the dog. Same thing for a family member who is watching the dog for the owner.

What if you or your child is bitten by a dog?

Needless to say, if it’s a savage bite and you’re bleeding profusely, call 911. Get medical treatment right away. Don’t take any chances.

Otherwise, here are some tips that may help after a less immediately severe dog attack:

  1. Get to a safe place. Get out of attack range! If you’re inside, go outdoors. If you’re outside, go in, and shut the door. Put a barrier between your body and the dog, even if it seems to have calmed down.
  2. Wash the wound thoroughly. Soap and water should work, but hydrogen peroxide or isopropyl alcohol can help sanitize the area. Put a clean bandage on and secure it.
  3. Apply pressure to a bleeding wound. If you rinse, and the wound still bleeds, apply pressure until it stops. If it doesn’t, or you feel sick, call 911 right away.
  4. Visit your doctor. As soon as possible, see your doctor to have the wound examined. You’ll need a blood test to determine if the dog has rabies. Don’t rely on whether the dog had a rabies vaccine. You could be susceptible to an infection, fever, tetanus, rabies, or other complications. You may have suffered nerve or tissue damage that needs to be treated, and you’ll want to see if you can minimize scarring.
  5. Report the bite. Tell Animal Control and the Gloucester County Health Department what happened—(804) 693-6130 or (804) 693-3890. They need to put the dog in quarantine to make sure it doesn’t have rabies. If you get rabies, you have a short window of time to get treated, or the disease can be fatal.

What costs can you recover after a dog bite in Virginia?

Because most dogs are kept as pets, and most people like dogs, a dog attack can have a serious emotional impact on a victim, in addition to the physical and financial effects.

If you suffered a dog-bite injury, you can seek compensation for the following damages from the animal’s owner or keeper:

  • Current and future medical costs related to the injury, including physical therapy and rehabilitation
  • Pain and suffering
  • Permanent injury or disability
  • Scarring and disfigurement
  • Emotional trauma and resulting therapy
  • Lost wages
  • Loss of career or earning capacity

Should you sue a friend or neighbor?

Many people are reluctant to file a lawsuit against a dog’s owner, especially if that owner is a neighbor or friend. However, dog bites are usually covered under the dog owner’s homeowners insurance policy, so you’re likely not taking money from your neighbor’s pocket.

The exception would be if the owner’s policy had a stipulation that a certain breed of dog is not covered. This is sometimes the case with breeds like pit bulls, chow chows, and Rottweilers. But even if the owner is not covered by insurance, their pet caused you physical, emotional, and financial losses, and you do not deserve to pay for it.

We can help you make informed decisions

Dog-bite claims in Virginia are rarely simple, largely due to the state’s one-bite rule. It can be difficult to get a fair payout from an insurance company without having a local dog bite lawyer represent you.

At GibsonSingleton Virginia Injury Attorneys, we take a personal interest in every case we handle, and we fight diligently to get our clients the compensation they deserve. Call our office for a free consultation at (804) 413-6777.

Additional Resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Dog Bite Prevention
Virginia Department of Health: Rabies Control
County of Gloucester Animal Control: Frequently Asked Questions
Gloucester-Mathews Humane Society: FAQs

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