Recent findings on dog bite liability by the Insurance Information Institute are likely to stir up debate. If you own a dog and haven’t looked at your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy recently, you may want to get it out now and take a look at the fine print.
The Institute says that most homeowner insurance policies provide $100,000 to $300,000 in coverage, and typically include dog bite liability. The Institute quoted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for statistics showing that dogs bite more than 4.7 million people per year, causing 800,000 people to seek medical assistance. 386,000 require treatment in an emergency department, and approximately 16 die. Because more than half of dog bites occur on the owner’s property, and more than one third of all homeowner liability claims are dog bite claims, insurers have started taking notice.
Dog bite liability generally arises in three ways. First, a state may have a dog bite statute making the owner automatically liable for any unprovoked injury or property damage caused by a pet dog. The District of Columbia has such a “strict liability” statute for the first bite. Second, an owner may be liable for injury caused by his or her dog only if the owner knew the dog had a propensity to bite. This is commonly called the “one free bite” rule, and is followed in Maryland and Virginia. [For a very comprehensive analysis of dog bite liability and a breakdown of which states have dog bite statutes and which states follow the “one free bite” rule, take a look at Kenneth Phillips’ Dog Bite Law site.] Third, the owner may be liable for negligence for injury caused by the owner’s having been unreasonably careless in handling the dog.
According to the Institute, most insurers provide coverage to households with dogs. However, some insurers have started to require liability waivers for dog bites. Other insurers charge extra for or exclude certain “biting breeds” (a term used by the Institute in this recent article) such as Rottweilers and pit bulls. [For a list of other breeds commonly targeted by insurers, see the post Dog Breeds Can Affect Home Insurance Rates on e-wisdom.com.] Some insurers will provide coverage if the owner takes behavior modification classes or “if the dog is restrained with a muzzle, chain or cage,” according to the Institute. Still others are refusing to insure dog owners at all.
As justification for the insurers’ actions, the Institute cites data that shows an increase in 2009 in the number, value and average cost of dog bite claims. From 2008 to 2009, the number of claims have risen 4.8%, from 15,823 to 16,586. In that same time frame, the value of claims has risen 6.4%, from $387 million to $412 million. The average cost of dog bite claims has risen 1.5%, from $24,461 in 2008 to $24,840 in 2009.
Probably the most contentious statement by the Institute is this:
Insurers generally oppose legislation that would require changes to their dog breed practices. They contend that government public health studies and the industry’s claims histories show that some breeds are more dangerous than others and are higher loss risks.
This statement is in direct contrast to the approach taken by the Department of Justice, which has recently modified its definition of the term “service animal” in the Americans with Disabilities Act. The DOJ refused to cave to local efforts in banning particular breeds, maintaining its position that a service dog may be of any breed, and can be excluded from access based solely on that particular dog’s actual and individual behavior and history. [For more about the new definition of “service animal,” refer to my post, Watch for these Changes to the ADA Definition of Service Animal.] Notably, at least two states – Pennsylvania and Michigan – forbid breed discrimination, with laws prohibiting insurers from cancelling or denying coverage to owners of particular dog breeds.
The Institute also said: “It is unlikely that insurers will begin offering specialty insurance just for dog bites since the cost of such polices would be prohibitive.” I find this very disconcerting in the face of laws such as Virginia’s dangerous dog statute, enacted in 2008. Virginia’s dangerous dog statute requires the owner of a dog declared by a court to be “dangerous” to carry maintain a surety bond or have an insurance policy of at least $100,000. Even more frustrating is the fact that Virginia’s dangerous dog statute has no requirement that a dog bite to a person be of any certain level of severity. I fear that the requirement of a $100,000 bond or policy will prove to be so onerous that some owners of dangerous dogs – even ones who inflicted very minor injuries to a person – may feel they have no choice but to turn to euthanasia because they cannot afford the cost of complying with the statute.