What are Virginia's Laws Regarding Dog Bites?

Virginia is one of only 19 states which still adheres to the "one bite rule." This rule, which dates back to the early days of common law in England, states that each dog gets "one free bite," for which the owner or handler is not liable in civil court. This means that the first time a dog mauls or even kills a person, no matter how young or old, the injured person and their family can have no recovery against the dog's owner.

There are two small exceptions to this rule, however. First, plaintiffs in Virginia can still win cases if they can demonstrate that the dog's owner or handler was negligent in their handling of the animal. If they can get a jury to agree that the owner somehow fell short of the standard of "ordinary care" in handling the animal around the injured person, the owner may be held liable.

The second route for a successful plaintiff's case depends on local ordinance. Plaintiffs can also win their cases if the locality or city in which they live has a "leash law." These laws are designed to protect the public from personal injury inflicted by dogs. Violation of a leash law constitutes negligence per se. Negligence per se is a legal doctrine that states that a statute promulgated by the legislature constitutes the standard of care in a locality and that a violation of the statute automatically constitutes negligent conduct on behalf of the dog owner.

However, dog owner's are also protected by another legal doctrine - contributory negligence. "Contributory negligence" is an 18th century doctrine that is still alive in only 4 states in America. It states that plaintiffs who are somewhat at fault - even one percent - have absolutely no legal right to a recovery for medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, or any other damage.

Virginia's laws are outdated and do not reflect the nature of today's societies. Dog owners need to be held accountable for the actions of their animals, even if the dog has never bitten anyone before. The Virginia law essentially tells dog owners that they do not have to take care to ensure that their animal is docile and well-behaved until it has already struck once. Virginia should join the 30 other states who have no "free bite" rule.