Hey, Your Dog Bit Me! Understanding Liability and Insurance Coverage for Dog-Bite Claims

Hey, Your Dog Bit Me! Understanding Liability and Insurance Coverage for Dog-Bite Claims

Did you know that nearly 78 million dogs live in more than 54 million U.S. households? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 4.5 million dog bites every year, nearly 20 percent of which require medical attention. Being that it’s almost National Dog Bite Prevention Week (the 3rd full week of May), now’s a good time to take a closer look at the potentially significant liability created by dogs.

( Obviously, we’re talking about other people’s dogs, not yours. You’re a good dog, aren’t you? Yes, you are!)

According to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2015:

  • More than one-third of every dollar paid for homeowners’ liability insurance claims were for dog bites and dog-related injuries, such as dogs knocking down children, cyclists, the elderly, etc.
  • The nationwide average cost per dog-bite claim increased 16 percent to $37,214, even though the number of claims decreased 7.2 percent.
  • California had the most dog-bite claims (1,684).
  • Arizona had the highest cost per claim ($56,654).

As a general rule, owners may be held liable for injuries caused by their dogs. However, specific dog-bite liability laws can vary significantly from state to state. They can even vary by city and county within a state. Nevertheless, these laws usually fall into one of three categories:

  • One-Bite Laws adopt a negligence approach by imposing liability on owners who knew or should have known about their dog’s dangerous or vicious propensities based on prior behavior.
  • Strict Liability Laws impose liability regardless of what the owner knew or should have known. The first bite isn’t free.
  • Mixed Laws impose liability using a combination of negligence and strict liability, depending on the circumstances. In Florida, for example, owners are strictly liable, but damages may be reduced if the person who was bitten carelessly or mischievously provoked the dog. In some cases, a Florida owner may avoid liability by posting a “Bad Dog” sign on the premises.

Regardless of which kind of law may apply, homeowners are likely to be held liable or at least get sued for damages if someone is bitten by their dog. Given the high costs of defending and paying dog-bite liability claims, homeowners are increasingly relying on their homeowners’ or renters’ insurance for protection. Of course, that’s assuming their policy covers dog-bite claims. Not all do.

Dog-bite claims are typically covered under standard homeowners’ insurance policies. However, insurers are increasingly taking steps to limit their exposure to dog-bite claims. Some insurance companies are asking about and excluding coverage for specific breeds that are considered too aggressive. Others are excluding coverage altogether. Upon discovering that a dog has already bitten someone, insurance companies may increase the premium, exclude the dog from coverage under the policy or refuse to renew the policy.

Dog-bite claims can create potentially significant liability, so owners need to know whether they have coverage under their homeowners’ policy, preferably before someone is bitten. Check your policy to see if dog-bite (animal) claims are covered. If not, other options should be considered. Insurance options, that is. We know getting rid of the dog isn’t an option for most dog owners.

Please contact us if you have any questions or would like to explore coverage options for dog-bite claims.

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