Dog bites and other animal attacks always raise difficult questions regarding fault and liability. How much control can a pet owner be expected to exercise over a pet or working animal's behavior? Were proper fences, leashes, restraints and cages used? Did bitten or mauled victims provoke the animal into charging, biting and clawing or kicking?
A statement from the city's police department indicates that the dog leaped a 4-foot fence at its handler's house before setting upon the men who were gathered on Willow Wood Drive. All three people suffered bites but refused hospital treatment. The animal was subdued before law enforcement arrived and took it into custody. Now, the dog is at a city pound undergoing 10 days of observation for physical and behavioral health issues such as rabies or excessive aggressiveness.
For insurance purposes, dogs and working animals are considered property. When an animal injures or kills, its owner can bear liability in the same way that the homeowner or business owner would be responsible for an unsafe structure or dangerous situation. Letting a dog get out of a yard can constitute negligence, as can failing to train the animal properly.
Where liability issues could get especially convoluted in this Norfolk dog bite case is that the animal is technically city property. Even though it lived primarily with its handler, the dog could be considered the equivalent of a city vehicle. Norfolk, rather than the human officer, may have been negligent in not ensuring that adequate steps were taken to secure the dog and to prevent it from attacking without explicit commands to do so.
Having the City of Norfolk found liable for the dog bite could open up a whole new set of challenges concerning an area of law known as sovereign immunity. Under that legal theory, government agencies can invoke broad exemptions from civil lawsuits stemming from uncontrolled or misused property.
It remains unclear whether any of these problems will need to be addressed since the men bitten by the police dog in Norfolk have not yet pursued any injury claims. If the victims decide to do so, however, they should seriously consider seeking counsel and representation from an experienced Virginia personal injury lawyer.