Dog bite injuries are a serious issue for any dog owner. They can subject the dog bite victim to a terrifying experience, emergency room treatment, stitches, rabies treatment, and scarring that cannot be adequately corrected even with reconstructive plastic surgery. Worse yet, the victims often are friends or relatives of the dog owner, and statistics show that small children and elderly adults are the ones who are most likely to be the victim of a serious dog bite attack. In our law firm, this has held true: the victims of most serious dog bites have been children, and many of the dog bite victims have known or been related to the owner of the dog.
Most people realize that their automobile liability insurance covers them when they are involved in a car accident, but many people who own dogs give little thought to how they are going to be covered if their dog bites someone else. The answer to that question is that for people who own their homes, their homeowners insurance coverage, and for renters, their renter’s insurance.
For insurance companies, dog bite claims are an expensive proposition. The insurance industry paid out a total of $351.4 million in dog bite liability claims in 2006, with an average payment of $24,511. Dog bite claims accounted for approximately 4% of the homeowners liability claims, but approximately 15% of claim dollars paid out.
There are a couple of ways that the insurance industry could react to this problem. One way might be to offer discounts to dog owners who bring their dogs to obedience training, much in the same way that some insurance companies reward safe drivers with discounts on their car insurance. Another way to handle may be to support organizations which promote dog safety, or to engage in public safety awareness programs themselves, much as they have done with campaigns to discourage drunk driving and to encourage seat belt use.
However, when it comes to dog bites and dog bite claims, the insurance industry has been taking a different approach: to write dog bite claims out of the insurance policy. Most people don’t realize that an insurance policy is a contract between you and the insurance company. The essence of the contract is a promise: in return for payment of a premium, we will cover you when something happens. The part about “when something happens” is sometimes buried in the fine print of the insurance policy.
The insurance companies writes the policy, and they are, for the most part, free to set the terms of coverage. For example, virtually all insurance policies exclude intentional acts from coverage. Other exclusions are less obvious but enormously important for homeowners. For example, many people living on the Gulf Coast had policies which excluded damage caused by floods from coverage — a fact of which they were unaware until Hurricane Katrina wiped their home away.
In the last few years, insurance companies have taken to issuing policies or making amendments to existing policies which exclude dog bites from certain breeds of dogs from coverage. Most often, the exclusion is written in terms of the breed of the dog. For example, the insurance policy will exclude a dog bite from a pit bull, but will still cover a dog bite from a golden retriever. The rationale for choosing a breed of dog for exclusion is that the breed has been associated with a higher rate of bite claims and/or a higher cost per claim for each bite.
The most common breeds chosen for exclusion include:
- Pit bulls;
- Great Danes;
- Presa Canarios;
- German Shepards;
- Alaskan Malamutes;
- Doberman pinschers; and
Simply because you have a dog that belongs to one of the breeds listed above does not mean that your dog falls into the exclusion, but you should review your insurance policy carefully and discuss the situation with your agent and insurance carrier to be certain that you are covered. If your insurance carrier has an exclusion which even potentially covers your dog, one of two courses of action are advisable. One is to simply switch insurance companies to one which will cover your dog. A second option is to obtain a specialty policy from an insurance company which specifically covers dogs.
Either way, simply going without insurance coverage without for dog bite injuries is not a wise move. Unfortunately, too many American consumers have been going without not realizing that an exclusion in their insurance policy has denied them coverage.
We recommend to all of our clients that twice a year, in connection with changing the clocks to daylights savings, that in addition to checking the batteries on their smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, that they check their homeowner’s insurance and their auto insurance to make sure that they have the right kind of insurance coverage. This includes homeowner’s liability insurance coverage that actually covers them in the event of a dog bite injury caused by their dog.