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Can a property owner be held liable for a dog bite?

Most people understand premises liability to refer to a property owner's liability for an accident that occurs on his or her property due to a dangerous property condition. Virginia residents should also be aware, however, of the fact that a property owner or dog owner can be held liable under premises liability for damage or injury caused by a dog bite in certain situations.

Virginia law protects people who are injured by a dog bite by holding the owner, or even the custodian, of the dog liable unless he or she can prove certain facts that will prevent liability from attaching. For example, a dog owner may be able to avoid liability if the person bitten by the dog was trespassing on the dog owner's property. However, people with a legal right to come onto the property in the course of performing their jobs or for other reasons would not be deemed to be trespassing. This means that a dog owner could not use the trespassing defense to protect against liability if a mail carrier or gas or electric meter reader were bitten by a dog.

Other defenses to liability for a dog bite can include if the person bitten was teasing, tormenting or abusing the dog prior to the bite. This could prevent liability for the dog owner because it could show that the dog bite was the result of the victim's actions and not the dog's inherent viciousness or the dog owner's negligence in properly confining the dog or protecting the public from the dog's dangerous tendencies. In some cases, it could be sufficient to show that the victim had a history of provoking or abusing the dog so that even if there was no action by the victim at the specific time of the bite, the bite could still be attributed to the victim's wrongful actions and treatment of the dog

Proving or avoiding liability for a dog bite is very dependent on the specific facts of the situation and which facts each party can prove. For example, a dog owner attempting to avoid liability would have to adequately prove that the victim was trespassing or provoking the dog instead of simply asserting or alleging it. Many different facts can be used to prove or defend against liability. For example, a "beware of dog" sign could be argued to be an attempt to warn others of potential danger and prevent harm or it could be used as evidence that the dog owner knew the dog was dangerous and nevertheless failed to properly confine it.

Source: Prince William County Virginia, "Please remember, that all dogs can bite!," last accessed Dec. 14, 2014

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