Coping with Dog Bite Liability

You would have had to live underground with no radio, no TV, no phone, no Internet and no visitors for a couple of years not to know about the high-profile dog-bite trial in California.  A young woman was mauled and bitten to death by a dog bred for fighting.  That owner’s dogs had already exceeded the old every dog gets one bite standard. 

In any case, even the one bite standard has disappeared along with the church social.  If your dog bites someone, even if you had no reason to expect it would, you can also expect to be sued. 

Worse yet, it isn’t even all that unlikely your dog will bite someone.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are 4.7 million U.S. dog bites each year, resulting in costs equaling almost $1 billion.  The property/casualty industry paid out $310 million of that in 2001, up from $250 million five years earlier. 

Insurance companies are not only wise to those figures; they are smarting from claims against homeowner’s and renter’s policies brought by the ranks of the dog-bitten.  As a result, some companies have eliminated coverage for dog bites; others demand proof that your dog is not a member of a particularly bite-prone breed.

Insurers sometimes institute these changes to a policy already in force, but they do communicate this to the policyholder.  Problem?  Most of us don’t bother to carefully read any communication after the initial policy, except bills.

So, if you own a dog, read your policy.  Even if it covers domestic pets and their damage, check with your agent to see if there have been changes since your policy went into effect.  And if so, make sure you’re still covered under that policy, or take additional action.

If your policy does cover actions by your dog, typically, it will provide between $100,000 and $300,000 in liability coverage.  If a claim exceeds your policy’s limits, you will be responsible for everything above that amount.

Once your dog has bitten someone, however, and a claim has been made, the dog poses an increased risk and your insurer may suggest finding the dog a new home.  Or, the insurer may charge a higher premium (which would be acceptable to most dog lovers, preferable, in fact, to losing the dog), or not renew the policy, or exclude the dog from coverage.  For the latter possibility, a dog owner may be able to add a separate policy specifically to cover the dog’s potential liability, although the cost, if you could find such a policy, might be prohibitive.  Many companies already ask policyholders to certify that they do not harbor a vicious animal.  Others won’t accept new business from any policyholder who has had a dog bite claim in the past three years, even if that pet is no longer in the home.

The twin issues of dog bites and liability/insurance have become so important there is a Web site devoted to helping consumers with their dog-bite issues; www.dogbitelaw.com.

Here, in brief, are some suggestions to be sure that your dog’s actions regarding humans are covered by insurance, and how to make the likelihood that your dog will bring liability problems upon you are minimized:

  • Have your dog spayed or neutered.  Studies show dogs are three times more likely to bite if they are not neutered.
  • Socialize your dog to behave well around other people and animals.
  • Discourage children from bothering a dog that is eating or sleeping.
  • When you play with your dog, make it fun games such as fetch, not aggressive ones such as tug-of-war.
  • Avoid exposing your dog to situations that might cause it to be afraid or protective.
  • Have your dog obedience-not attack-trained.

If you don’t own a dog, you’ve probably stopped reading by now.  That would be a shame, because the statistics are on your side.   

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