Virginia Dog-Bite Laws and Personal Injury Claims

If you have been injured in a dog-bite incident in Virginia, or if you're an animal owner who might be facing a lawsuit, you need to understand the state laws that could affect your case.

Updated by , Attorney (UC Berkeley School of Law)

Dog owners in Virginia and anyone who's been injured by a dog in that state should know how the law applies to their situation. In this article we'll look at:

  • dog owner liability for bites and other injuries
  • the role negligence plays in a dog-bite claim
  • criminal charges in dog-bite situations, and
  • possible defenses a dog's owner might raise when facing a dog-bite lawsuit in Virginia.

Virginia's Dog-Bite Law

Unlike many other states, Virginia does not have a specific dog-bite statute. Instead, the state handles dog-bite and dog-related injury cases according to the common law rules laid down in Virginia court cases over the years.

Virginia uses the so-called "one bite" rule for dog-bite claims. Under this rule, a dog's owner may be held strictly liable for injuries caused by their dog if the owner knew—or should have known—that the dog might act aggressively against a person or pet. For instance, the one-bite rule would probably apply to an owner who knew that their dog had bitten someone before.

Despite its name, the "one bite" rule does not apply only to dog bites. It also applies to other kinds of harm a dog might cause. For example, if the dog is known for jumping on people, then a someone who is injured when the dog jumps on and knocks them down may decide to seek damages from the dog's owner.

Negligence and "Negligence Per Se" in Virginia Dog-Bite Claims

A person harmed by a dog can still seek damages from the owner even if the dog has never injured a person before. To prove that a Virginia owner is liable for damages when the one-bite rule doesn't apply, an injured person has to show that the dog owner was negligent—in other words, that the owner caused the injury by failing to use reasonable care to control their dog.

In some cases, the injured person might argue that the owner's behavior constituted negligence per se. An owner can be found negligent per se when:

  • they violate a law or ordinance designed to protect the public, and
  • that violation leads to a victim's injuries.

For example, suppose that a pedestrian is walking in a park one day when he is bitten by a dog. The dog's owner was walking the dog in the park but did not have the dog on a leash, even though city ordinances require all dogs to be on leashes while they are in the park. Here, the injured pedestrian would have a good argument that the dog owner's failure to leash the dog was negligence per se, and that the owner should be therefore be held liable for damages related to the bite.

(A note: All dog-bite claims in Virginia must be filed before the state's statute of limitations expires.)

Criminal Penalties for Dog-Bite Injuries in Virginia

Courts in Virginia can classify dogs as "dangerous" if they attack people or pets, in which case the canine goes on the state's Dangerous Dog Registry. If a dog listed on the registry causes more harm, potential criminal consequences for the owner include:

  • conviction of a Class 2 misdemeanor if the dog "attacks and injured or kills" another person's cat or dog, and
  • conviction of a Class 1 misdemeanor if the dog bites or attacks a human, causing injury.

(Va. Code § 3.2-6540.04 (2023).)

Owners can also be charged with misdemeanors for failing to follow Virginia's rules for registering and keeping dangerous dogs. (Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6540.03 (2023).)

In addition, the owner of any dog can be convicted of a Class 6 felony if:

  • their failure to properly control their dog is "so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life," and
  • the dog attacks and seriously injure someone as a direct result of the owner's conduct.

(Va. Code § 3.2-6540.1 (2023).)

If criminal charges are filed, a person who was injured by a dangerous dog may still file a civil lawsuit. Criminal charges are filed by local or state prosecutors, while civil lawsuits are filed by the injured person directly.

Defenses to a Virginia Dog-Bite Claim

In a civil lawsuit involving a dog-related injury in Virginia, contributory negligence can be a powerful defense. An owner can prove contributory negligence by showing that the injured person was partly to blame for the injuries suffered.

For example, suppose that a child is teasing the neighbor's dog with a stick when the dog bites the child. The dog's owner may argue that the child provoked the dog, which led to the bite. In other words, by provoking the dog, the argument goes, the child contributed to his own injuries and should therefore not be allowed to recover damages.

In Virginia, contributory negligence is a complete bar to recovery. This means that if the injured person is found to be even one percent at fault for their own injuries, they are barred from recovering any damages at all.

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