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dog running in the grass behind owner

What happens if a dog bites or attacks you and causes an injury? The odds are, unfortunately, higher than you may think. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, more than four million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs every year. If you are bitten and need medical treatment, you might be left with hefty bills and wonder who will be held responsible. It depends on several factors, including where the attack happened. Virginia’s dog bite laws are complicated, and we are here to help you navigate them.

While some states have strict liability laws and hold dog owners at fault for any injury, Virginia approaches it differently. Virginia’s dog bite laws are rooted in its common law doctrines of negligence, state statutes, and local ordinances. The general rule for dog bites in Virginia and whether the owner is liable for the attack or bite is whether or not the dog owner acted negligently—did he or she depart from the usual standard of care from what a reasonable person would have done under similar circumstances? What does this mean? Well, it all depends on the facts of the case; dog bite cases are very fact-specific.

Where the attack happens, matters

If a dog escapes from someone’s property and attacks you, several factors come into play. First and foremost, where did the attack happen? Did it happen on private property or public land? Each County, City, or Town usually have their own ordinance when dealing with leash laws. 

For example, Fairfax County Code § 41.1-2-4 states that “No dog shall run unrestricted, as defined in Section 41.1-1-1, in the County. Any person who is the owner of a dog found unrestricted in the County shall be in violation of this Section.” This could be considered negligence per se, and the owner of the dog would then be liable for any attacks that occurred in the County of Fairfax when a dog has escaped. 

However, compared to Arlington County Code Chapter 2 § 2-5, which states “It shall be unlawful for the owner of any dog to permit such dog, whether licensed or unlicensed to run at large in the County. . .” Arlington requires the dog owner to “permit” his or her dog to run at large in the County. So, if a dog escapes and bites someone in Arlington, the injured person would have to prove that the dog escaped due to the owner’s failure to exercise reasonable care. Leash laws are complicated, and where the attack happens can significantly impact your case. 

Prior bites, matter

Did the dog ever attack or bite a person before? What about another dog? Did the owner have prior knowledge of this? All these issues also play a role in considering whether or not an owner may be liable for their dog attacking another. If an owner of a dog is aware that their dog bit or attacked another person in the past, they are aware that their dog can potentially harm another person and act accordingly. If a dog who has never bit someone before, attacks someone, then the owner might not be liable for this if that attack was not reasonably foreseeable. 

Breed propensities, matter

Under Virginia law, any animal owner is responsible for taking note of the “natural inclinations or characteristics” of the breed. If a dog is more prone to aggressive behavior due to its breed makeup and an owner does not take steps to keep the dog from biting, the dog’s breed will be taken into consideration when dealing with dog attacks. However, Virginia law also states that no dog shall be found to be dangerous solely because of its particular breed. 

Contributory negligence, also matters

Virginia is one of the few states that still follows the contributory negligence rule. This means if a person is injured, but their own negligence in any way contributed to their injuries, they cannot hold anyone else liable for those injuries. A typical example of this is if a dog is having a physical altercation with another animal, and someone attempts to break up the fight and is injured in the process. The injured party might not be able to recover for their injuries in Virginia because he or she could be considered negligent in breaking up two animals fighting. 

If you or a loved one have been bitten or attacked by a dog, you can find out more about dog bites here or by contacting us. For more information about your possible legal options regarding a dog bite incident, you can reach an attorney at Curcio Law. Give us a call or text us at 703-836-3366, email, or visit

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