Avoid Being Bitten With a Lawsuit by Being a Responsible Dog Owner

I.I.I. Study Shows Dog Bite Claims Cost Nearly $390 Million Annually

 

INSURANCE INFORMATION INSTITUTE
New York Press Office: (212) 346-5500; media@iii.org
Washington Press Office: (202) 833-1580

 
NEW YORK, September 14, 2009 — Man’s best friend is sinking its teeth into homeowners insurance costs. Dog bites account for one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims, costing $387.20 million in 2008, up 8.70 percent from 2007, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.).
 
An analysis of homeowners insurance data by the I.I.I. found that the average cost of dog bite claims was $24,461 in 2008 (the most recent figures available) down slightly from $24,511 in 2007. Since 2003, however, the cost of these claims has risen nearly 28 percent. Additionally, the number of claims has increased 8.89 percent to 15,823 in 2008 from 14,531 in 2007. 
 
 
ESTIMATED NUMBER AND COST OF DOG BITE CLAIMS, 2003-2008
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
Percent change, 2007-2008
Percent change, 2003-2008
Value of claims ($ millions)
$324.20
$319.00
$321.10
$322.30
$356.20
$387.20
8.70%
19.43%
Number of claims
16,919
15,630
14,295
14,661
14,531
15,823
8.89%
-6.48%
Average cost per claim
$19,162
$20,406
$22,464
$21,987
$24,511
$24,461
-0.20%
27.65%
Source: Insurance Information Institute.
 
 
“The rise in dog bite claims over the course of the past five years can be attributable to the increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards which have risen well above inflation in recent years,” said Loretta Worters, vice president of the I.I.I. 
 

More than 4.5 million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs annually, and nearly 900,000 of those—half of them children—require medical care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 31,000 Americans needed reconstructive surgery after dogs attacked them in 2006, center figures show. With more than 50 percent of bites occurring on the dog owner’s property, the issue is a major source of concern for insurers.

 

Dog Owner Liability

There are three kinds of law that impose liability on owners:
  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 the dog owner was unreasonably careless (negligent) in controlling the dog.
 
In most states, dog owners are not liable to trespassers who are injured by a dog. A dog owner who is legally responsible for an injury to a person or property may be responsible for reimbursing the injured person for medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering and property damage.
 
“Although some people purchase dogs for the purpose of guarding their homes, deadbolt locks and home security systems are safe burglary deterrents and that will often earn you a discount on your insurance premium,” said Worters.
 

How to Protect Yourself—and Your Assets

 
Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability. Most policies provide $100,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage. If the claim exceeds that 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 enables them to submit their medical bills directly to the homeowner’s insurance company. Homeowners can generally get $1,000 to $5,000 worth of no-fault 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. Some will cover a pet only if the owner takes the dog to classes aimed at modifying its behavior. 
 
A single lawsuit—even if won—can end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the greater a person’s assets, the morepotentially is at risk. The personal liability coverage available through a standard homeowners or automobile policy simply 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, it protects you against personal liabilities, such as dog bites, that could impact a substantial portion of your assets.
 
The amount of 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, then 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.
 
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 victims to human shortcomings such as poor training, irresponsible ownership and breeding practices that foster viciousness or neglect and abuse. To reduce the chances of a dog biting someone, the following steps are recommended by the CDC:
 
  • 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 of with an infant or toddler. Dogs with histories of aggression are inappropriate in households 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 the dog develops aggressive or undesirable behaviors.
 
“Most dogs are friendly, loving members of the family,” said Worters. “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.”

 

 

The I.I.I. is a nonprofit, communications organization supported by the insurance industry.
 

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