Spotlight on: Dog bite liability

Overview

About 63 million U.S. households own dogs, according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2019-2020 Pet Owners Survey. The American Veterinary Medical Association says there are nearly 77 million dogs living in U.S. households. Millions of people are bitten by dogs every year, mostly children. In 2017, of the 350,000 people treated for non-fatal dog injuries, nearly 10,600 were children two years old or younger.

Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability legal expenses, up to the liability limits (typically $100,000 to $300,000). If the claim exceeds the limit, the dog owner is responsible for all damages above that amount.

Dog bite liability and homeowners insurance

Some insurance companies will not insure homeowners who own certain breeds of dogs categorized as dangerous, such as pit bulls. Others decide on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether an individual dog, regardless of its breed has been deemed vicious. Some insurers do not ask the breed of a dog owned when writing or renewing homeowners insurance and do not track the breed of dogs involved in dog bite incidents. However, once a dog has bitten someone, it poses an increased risk. In that instance, the insurance company may charge a higher premium, nonrenew the homeowner’s insurance policy or exclude the dog from coverage.

Some insurers are taking steps to limit their exposure to such losses. Some companies require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites, while others charge more for owners of breeds such as pit bulls and Rottweilers and others are not offering insurance to dog owners at all. Some will cover a pet if the owner takes the dog to classes aimed at modifying its behavior or if the dog is restrained with a muzzle, chain or cage.

Homeowners insurance liability claims

  • Liability claims related to dog bites and other dog-related injuries cost homeowners insurers $854 million in in 2020, according to the Insurance Information Institute (Triple-I) and State Farm®.
  • The number of dog bite claims nationwide fell in 2020 to 16,991 from 17,802 in 2019—a 4.6 percent decrease, according to an analysis of homeowners insurance claims data by the Triple-I.
  • The average cost per claim increased by 12.3 percent in 2020 to $50,425 from $44,760 in 2019. The average cost per claim nationally has risen 162 percent from 2003 to 2020, due to increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards given to plaintiffs, which are trending upwards.
  • By state, California continues to have the largest number of claims in the United States, at 2,103 in 2020, down from 2,396 in 2019. The state with the second highest number of claims was Florida at 1,235. Nebraska had the highest average cost per claim at $71,243, followed by New York with an average cost of $66,817. The trend in higher costs per claim is attributable not only to dog bites but also to dogs knocking down children, cyclists, the elderly, etc., which can result in injuries that impact the potential severity of the losses.

State and local legislation

In 29 states, dog owners are liable for injuries their pets cause, with some exceptions such as if the dog was provoked, according to a Triple-I analysis of dog bite laws compiled by the American Property Casualty Insurers Association as of March 2021. In 17 states and the District of Columbia, liability is not automatically granted but attacks are classified as misdemeanors or, in extreme cases, as felonies, with fines. There are no laws for dog bites in four states—Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi and North Dakota. By year end-2019 there were 40 counties and 1,160 cities that had “breed specific” statutes that identify breeds such as pit bulls as dangerous and prohibit ownership. Pit bulls were named in 97 percent of all city ordinances. No state had a breed-specific statute. With regard to insurance, at least two states, Pennsylvania and Michigan, have laws that prohibit insurers from canceling or denying coverage to the owners of particular dog breeds in some policies. Some states could exclude coverage after a dog bite, such as Ohio, which also requires owners of dogs that have been classified as vicious to purchase at least $100,000 of liability insurance.

The American Kennel Club says that while many municipalities have enacted bans on specific breeds, about a dozen states have laws barring municipalities and counties from targeting individual breeds.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic keeping more people at home in 2020 and an increase in home deliveries, the number of dog bite claims in the United States dropped by 4.6 percent from 2019. Additionally, a February 2021 survey from the Insurance Research Council, Consumer Responses to the Pandemic and Implications for Insurance, found that 21 percent of homeowners reported adopting a dog in 2020.

 

  • Dog owners’ liability: There are three kinds of law that impose liability on owners:
    1) A dog-bite statute: where the dog owner is automatically liable for any injury or property damage the dog causes without provocation.
    2) The one-bite rule: where the dog owner is responsible for an injury caused by a dog if the owner knew the dog was likely to cause that type of injury—in this case, the victim must prove the owner knew the dog was dangerous.
    3) Negligence laws: where the dog owner is liable if the injury occurred because the dog owner was unreasonably careless (negligent) in controlling the dog.
  • Criminal penalties: Dog owners could be charged with serious crimes if their dogs attack and severely injure people. In a 2002 California case, a woman and her husband were tried for second-degree murder after their Presa Canario dogs attacked and killed a neighbor. The woman was convicted of second-degree murder and her husband was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. This was only the third time that dog owners were tried for murder in the U.S. The first case was in Kansas in 1997.

Charts

Estimated Number and Cost of Dog Bite Claims, 2003-2020 (1)

 

Year Value of claims
($ millions)
Number
of claims
Average cost
per claim (2)
2003 $324.2 16,919 $19,162
2004 318.9 15,630 20,406
2005 321.1 14,295 22,464
2006 322.4 14,661 21,987
2007 356.2 14,531 24,511
2008 387.0 15,823 24,461
2009 412.0 16,586 24,840
2010 412.6 15,770 26,166
2011 490.8 16,695 29,396
2012 489.7 16,459 29,752
2013 483.7 17,359 27,862
2014 530.8 16,550 32,072
2015 571.3 15,352 37,214
2016 602.2 18,123 33,230
2017 686.3 18,522 37,051
2018 674.9 17,297 39,017
2019 796.8 17,802 44,760
2020 853.7 16,991 50,245
Percent change, 2019-2020 7.1% -4.6% 12.3%
Percent change, 2003-2020 163.3% 0.4% 162.2%

(1) Includes other dog-related injuries.
(2) Calculated from unrounded data.

Source: Insurance Information Institute, State Farm®.

View Archived Tables

Top 10 States By Estimated Number and Cost of Dog Bite Claims, 2020 (1)

 

Rank State Number of claims Average cost per claim Value of claims ($ millions)
1 California 2,103 $64,622 $135.9
2 Florida 1,235 55,111 68.1
3 Texas 969 40,931 39.7
4 New York 881 66,817 58.9
5 Pennsylvania 787 45,134 35.5
6 Ohio 779 38,009 29.6
7 Illinois 732 48,433 35.5
8 Michigan 633 45,317 28.7
9 Georgia 488 42,863 20.9
10 New Jersey 467 49,582 23.2
  Top 10 9,074 $52,439 $475.8
  Other 7,917 $47,731 $377.9
  Total United States 16,991 $50,245 $853.7

(1) Includes other dog-related injuries that have impacted claims such as fractures or other blunt force trauma injuries.

Source: Insurance Information Institute, State Farm®.

View Archived Tables

Number of U.S. Households That Own a Pet, by Type of Animal

(millions)

Pet Number
Bird 5.7
Cat 42.7
Dog 63.4
Horse 1.6
Freshwater fish 11.5
Saltwater fish 1.6
Reptile 4.5
Small animal 5.4

Source: American Pet Products Association's 2019-2020 National Pet Owners Survey.

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Total Number Of Pets Owned In The United States, By Type Of Animal

(millions)

Pet Number
Freshwater fish 139.3
Cat 94.2
Dog 89.7
Bird 20.3
Saltwater fish 18.8
Small animal 14.0
Reptile 9.4
Horse 7.6

Source: American Pet Products Association's 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey.

View Archived Tables

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