Prevent Dog Bites – And a Lawsuit: Cost of Dog Bite Claims going up

Dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claim dollars paid out in 2012, costing more than $489 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) and State Farm, the largest writer of homeowners insurance in the United States.

An analysis of homeowners insurance data by the I.I.I. found that while the number of claims fell by 1.4 percent in 2012—the first decline since 2010—the costs of settling dog bite claims continued to rise, by 1.2 percent, last year. The average cost paid out for dog bite claims was $29,752 in 2012 compared with $29,396 in 2011. The decline in the number of claims and increase in claim costs essentially offset one another so that total costs associated with dog bite claims in 2012 were virtually unchanged—down a mere 0.2 percent in 2012.

While a decrease in dog bite claims is good news, the rise in claims costs by even a small amount suggests that medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards given to plaintiffs are still on the upswing, according to the I.I.I.

Dog Owner Liability

There are three kinds of law that impose liability on dog owners; not all the laws apply in every state:

  1. Dog-bite statute: The dog owner is automatically liable for any injury or property damage the dog causes, even without provocation.
  2. “One-bite” rule: In some states, the owner is not held liable for the first bite the dog inflicts. Once an animal has demonstrated vicious behavior, such as biting or otherwise displaying a “vicious propensity,” the owner can be held liable. Some states have moved away from the one-bite rule and hold owners responsible for any injury, regardless of whether the animal has previously bitten someone.
  3. Negligence laws The dog owner is liable if the injury occurred because he or she was unreasonably careless (negligent) in controlling the dog.

In most states, dog owners are not liable for losses incurred by trespassers who are injured by a dog. However, if a dog owner is considered legally responsible for an injury to a person or property the owner may have to reimburse the injured person for medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering and property damage.

Some people purchase dogs for the purpose of guarding their homes; however, deadbolt locks and home security systems can be safer burglary deterrents, and can often earn you a discount on your insurance premium, the I.I.I noted.

How to Protect Yourself—And Your Assets

Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability as part of the standard policy’s liability coverage, which can range from a limit of $100,000 to $300,000. If the claim exceeds the policy limit, the dog owner is personally responsible for all damages above that amount, including legal expenses. A liability policy also provides no-fault medical coverage in the event a dog bites a friend or neighbor. This allows for medical bills to be submitted directly to the homeowner’s insurance company. Homeowners can generally get $1,000 to $5,000 worth of this coverage.

Most insurance companies will insure homeowners with dogs. However, once a dog has bitten someone, your insurance company may charge a higher premium or exclude the dog from coverage. Some companies require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites. Others will cover a pet only if the owner takes the dog to classes aimed at modifying its behavior.

A single lawsuit—even if won by the dog owner who is being sued—can end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and lost wages. The greater a person’s assets, the higher the risk of a costly lawsuit. The personal liability coverage available through a standard homeowners or automobile policy may not be enough. Therefore, the I.I.I. advises homeowners to consider purchasing a personal excess liability policy. Also known as an umbrella liability policy, this protects you against personal liabilities, such as dog bites, that could impact a substantial portion of your assets.

Umbrella liability coverage usually ranges from $1 million to $10 million, and covers broad types of liability. Most insurance companies have required minimum amounts of underlying coverage—typically at least $250,000 of protection from your auto policy and $300,000 of protection from your homeowners policy. If you own a boat, you must also have boat insurance with a specified minimum amount of coverage. Personal excess liability insurance is relatively inexpensive. The first $1 million of coverage costs about $150 to $300 per year, the second million about $75, and subsequent increments of $1 million cost about $50 per year.

Of course, the best way to protect yourself is to prevent your dog from biting anyone in the first place. The most dangerous dogs are those that fall victim to human shortcomings such as poor training, irresponsible ownership and breeding practices that foster viciousness.

To reduce the chances of a dog biting someone, consider taking the following steps:

  • Consult with a professional (e.g., veterinarian, animal behaviorist, or responsible breeder) to learn about suitable breeds of dogs for your household and neighborhood.
  • Spend time with a dog before buying or adopting it. Use caution when bringing a dog into a home with an infant or toddler. A dog with a history of aggression is inappropriate in a household with children.
  • Be sensitive to cues that a child is fearful of or apprehensive about a dog and, if so, delay acquiring a dog. Never leave infants or young children alone with any dog.
  • Have your dog spayed or neutered. Studies show that dogs are three times more likely to bite if they are NOT neutered.
  • Socialize your dog so it knows how to act with other people and animals.
  • Discourage children from disturbing a dog that is eating or sleeping.
  • Play non-aggressive games with your dog, such as “go fetch.” Playing aggressive games like “tug-of-war” can encourage inappropriate behavior.
  • Avoid exposing your dog to new situations in which you are unsure of its response.
  • Never approach a strange dog and always avoid eye contact with a dog that appears threatening.
  • Immediately seek professional advice from veterinarians, animal behaviorists, or responsible breeders if your dog develops aggressive or undesirable behaviors.

Most dogs are friendly, loving members of the family but even normally docile dogs may bite when they are frightened or when protecting their puppies, owners or food. Ultimately, the responsibility for properly training and controlling a dog rests with the owner.

This article was provided by the Insurance Information Institute. The I.I.I. is a nonprofit, communications organization supported by the insurance industry. Insurance Information Institute, 110 William Street, New York, NY 10038; (212) 346-5500; www.iii.org

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