Homeowners Insurance and Dog Bite Liability

By: Bradley Steffens

Nearly 40 percent of American households have at least onedog, according to an annual survey by the American Pet Products ManufacturersAssociation. The average number of dogs per household stands at 1.7, with thetotal number of dogs in the United States topping 74 million. Dogs areeverywhere.

Like all domestic animals, dogs descended from wildancestors, and they still have wild instincts hardwired deep within theirbrains. One of these instincts is to protect their territory, their food, theiryoung, and even other pack members—sometimes including their human owners—bybarking, growling, and even biting. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reportthat 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs each year. That is an average of12,876 dog bites per day. Only a fraction of these bites—800,000—are seriousenough to merit medical attention, but that’s still more than 2,000 per day.Some 386,000 of these cases end up in hospitals, making dog bites the secondleading cause of injuries treated in emergency rooms (after softball/baseballinjuries).

Sadly, children make up half the dog bite victims who visitemergency rooms. In fact with group with the highest incidence of dog biteinjuries is boys aged 5 to 9 years, with 60.7 victims per 10,000 persons. Becauseof the large number of children bitten, the median age of dog bite victims isonly 15. Because of their diminutive stature, children are often bitten abovethe shoulders. Nearly three quarters (73 percent) of children admitted toemergency rooms for dog bites were bitten in the face and neck. Only 30 percentof adults suffer bites in the same areas. The CDC states that on average 16people die from dog bites each year. It is a miniscule portion of dog bitevictims—just 0.0002 percent of the total number—but it is a chilling factnonetheless.

The states are not united about how to govern dog bite liability. Somestates apply traditional legal standards of liability, requiring a showing ofnegligence on the part of the dog owner. If the dog has bitten before, actedaggressively toward others, or in some other way given an indication that itwas a danger to people, the owner could be held liable for the dog bite. Otherstates do not require a showing of negligence before assigning liability to thedog owner. California has a law that reads, in part: “The owner of any dog isliable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while ina public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of theowner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or theowner's knowledge of such viciousness."

In the past, policies offered blanket coverage fordog bite liability, but no more. Some insurers exclude all liability arisingfrom dog bites. Others provide coverage for most but not all breeds. Breedsconsidered prone to biting, such as the American Pit Bull Terrier (pit bulls),German Shepherd, Rottweiler, Saint Bernard, and Doberman Pinscher, are nowexcluded from liability coverage by some insurers. The CDC, which has studieddog bite injuries and fatalities in depth, does not agree with the premise ofthese exclusions. “A CDC study on fatal dog bites lists the breeds involved infatal attacks over 20 years," states the CDC website. “It does not identifyspecific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill, and thus is notappropriate for policy-making decisions related to the topic."

As with all liability coverage, read your policycarefully to see if dog bites or the bites from the breed of dog you own areexcluded. If you have questions about liability, call your agent. You might beable to add a rider to your policy to cover dog bite liability. Do not delay. Adog bite can occur in a fraction of a second, but the consequences can last foryears.

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