Canine Companions: Homeowners Insurance & Liability

Posted June 29th, 2012
by Staff Writer (no comments)

Dog bites are an uncomfortable subject for homeowners with canines. Nobody wants to believe that their sweet, playful pooch is capable of hurting another creature, especially a human. Often, homeowners and renters insurance policies have liability coverage for dog bites in the scenario that the victim seeks compensation for medical costs as a result of the bite. But deferring to this coverage can result in skyrocketed premiums or even dropped coverage. Data released by the Insurance Information Institute shows that dog bites make up more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims paid out last year, with the average claim amounting to more than $29,000. Not only do dog bites result in pricey claims, but knowing that your pet has marred another human being can weigh heavily on your conscious, especially if they require plastic surgery to deal with the scarring. Most states hold the dog’s owner automatically liable for their dog in the case of a dog bite, but some have special exemptions depending on the circumstance.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.5 million people are dog bite victims every year, with 800,000 Americans requiring medical attention for dog bites annually. Of the serious cases, 386,000 end up needing emergency services and there are 16 fatalities per year on average as a result of dog bites. Most attacks target children between the ages of five and nine, although they can happen to anyone.

Dog-Bite Liability Laws

There are three kinds of laws that hold the dog owner liable for their dog’s behavior. A dog-bite statute dictates that the dog’s owner is automatically liable for any damage incurred to another human or property as a result of their dog. The one-bite rule stipulates that the owner is only responsible if they knew beforehand that the biting dog was inclined toward aggression. The victim must be able to prove that the owner had prior knowledge of the dog’s aggressive history. Negligence laws also come into effect when an owner allows their dog to bite or destroy property as a result of being unreasonably careless when trying to control the dog. Most insurance policies provide $100,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage, but if that amount is exceeded, the dog’s owner is responsible for any expenses accrued as a result of injury caused by their dog. In some states, dogs that bite are either classified as dangerous or vicious, depending on the severity of the attack. Vicious dogs may need to be put down in accordance with local animal control.

Ohio state law recently changed concerning dangerous dogs. Originally, state law in Ohio stipulated that only Pit Bulls could be designated as dangerous dogs, a label that prevented the breed from being adopted out of shelters and resulted in many Pit Bulls being euthanized. However, state law now says that any dog breed may be classified as dangerous if it bites someone, and the dog’s behavior is the determining factor in whether or not the dog is deemed as dangerous, not its breed. When a dog is classified as dangerous, the owner has ten days to contest it in court before they must take several pains to ensure that others know about their dog. First, they must post “dangerous dog” signs outside the home, warding off potential strangers that might approach the dog in the yard. They must buy a $50 “dangerous dog” tag, which will dangle alongside their regular tag. The dog must be permanently identifiable with a microchip, it must be spayed or neutered, and it must be kept in a locked, fenced-in yard or other enclosure while on the property. If the owner wants to take their dog out, they must be leashed with a lead no longer than six feet. The long list of precautions may seem strict, but if your dog bites someone, there must be consequences.

In fact, in some places, if you don’t let people know that your dog is dangerous, you could wind up with a nasty lawsuit. In Tacoma, Washington a woman was attacked by two neighborhood Pit Bulls in her own home. The pit bulls’ owners were sued, as was the county for failing to note that the dogs were categorized as dangerous under a local ordinance. The woman won and was awarded $100,000 in medical bills and $2.1 million for pain and suffering. The county appealed the verdict. While nobody wants to admit that their dog may be a hazard, taking precautions with your dog may be necessary to ensure that you don’t swallow your words later on. In this scenario, the attacking dogs were likely aggressive as a result of owner neglect. The woman, Sue Gorman, had left the dog door in her home open for her own dog’s use when the Pit Bulls entered her home already worked up into a frenzy. They attacked her, her dog, and a neighbor’s dog that occasionally took respite at her home. The neighbor’s dog was killed and Gorman required 27 stitches on her face from dog bites. Neighbors testified that the Pit Bulls’ owners subjected them to obvious neglect, both mistreating them and failing to offer them food or water. Michael McKasy, the winning attorney, noted that “bad owners have bad dogs.”

Some insurance companies require that their clients sign liability waivers for reportedly aggressive dogs, saving the insurance company from losses accrued by repeated dog bite claims. They might not trust that their clients’ dogs will stay docile. Others will only cover a dog if the owner agrees to take them to a training class to modify their aggressive behavior. Liability waivers don’t always have solid footing, though. In California, for example, some daycares may require parents to sign liability waivers for their children while under their care. But if a child is bitten by a dog while at the daycare, that waiver is void against public policy and the daycare provider is held accountable.

Nature or Nurture

There are debates as to whether dog bites stem from innate aggression with certain breeds or if they are simply the result of humans misunderstanding dogs. Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, Chow Chows, and German Shepherds are often regarded as being predisposed towards aggression. In reality, these breeds almost always must be trained toward aggression or provoked before they will express violent behavior. According to the American Temperament Test Society, small, feisty breeds such as Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, and Schnauzers are actually less even-keeled and likely to express aggression without being provoked. The American Temperament Test takes into consideration things like the breed’s behavior towards strangers, reaction to auditory and visual stimuli, aggressive behavior, and antisocial behavior. On the other hand, terriers and other small dogs will likely not do the same kind of damage as a large, provoked dog.

Melissa Berryman, author of People Training for Good Dogs: What Breeders Don’t Tell You and Trainers Don’t Teach, notes that dog bites are not caused by “bad dogs,” but that humans merely misinterpret a dog when it is trying to communicate with you. If you approach a dog, it will give very clearly signals as to whether it wants to be approached. Yet, people may misunderstand the dog, resulting in dog bites. Often a dog will stiffen if it doesn’t like something. A human can engage with the dog by first patting their side, speaking in a high voice, and remaining friendly to show that they are not a threat to the canine. If the dog wants to be left alone, you should not continue to interact with it. Some dogs are protective of their food and shouldn’t be approached while they are eating. If a food-protective dog senses that you might take their food away from them, they may bite to ward you off.

Likewise, dogs are pack animals, and dog bites can occur even in your own home when certain protocols aren’t adhered to. Your dog likely sees your entire family as its pack, with possibly smaller children below it in ranking. If your children step out of line, a dog may nip them at the heels as part of their herding instinct. A herding bite is generally not hard and won’t break the skin, but may scare a child into running, which will prompt a dog to instinctively chase them. Dogs may also be trained to bite when an owner uses their hand as a form of punishment to the dog. If a dog gets swatted every time they have an accident in the house, for example, they may learn to fear a human hand and will react with biting. The dog can’t differentiate between an owner using their hand to punish and a small child approaching with a hand out to pet the dog. This is why so many abused dogs are perceived as more aggressive in nature. In truth, they are fearful because of how they have been treated from other humans. Even if a current owner hasn’t personally abused their dog, they may have adopted the dog from a shelter where previous owners subjected the animal to neglect.

Lastly, a dog that hasn’t been spayed or neutered may show more signs of aggression than a dog that’s been fixed. According to the American Humane Association, un-neutered dogs are 2.6 times more likely to bite than neutered dogs. An intact dog has biological instincts, which can lead to aggression and anxiety if they are not fulfilled. Neutering produces a calmer, more agreeable dog. It also stops the dog from breeding unnecessarily, reducing the amount of strays in the general dog populous.

Homeowners Insurance and Pets

If there are a slew of dog bite incidents in your neighborhood, your insurance rates could rise even if you don’t own a dog. Such is the case in the tri-state area, according to KEPR News. Some insurance carriers will even flat out deny you home insurance if you own one of the commonly thought of as aggressive breeds. If a dog bite occurs in your yard, you might be liable even if neither the dog nor the victim is affiliated with you, merely because it took place on your property.

Your insurance premiums may vary depending on the dog’s size as well. If you have a smaller or medium sized dog, the rates will likely be less than they would for a large dog. Large dog owners may gripe about this, considering their dog a “gentle giant” while their neighbors own tiny, ankle-biting dogs. It may take some research to find an insurance provider that doesn’t unfairly discriminate against your dog based on size. If your insurer refuses to cover your dog, an umbrella policy may be considered. This could cover things outside your regular insurance, such as canines. Some brokers also offer separate canine liability insurance.

Dogs aren’t the only animals that raise your homeowners insurance rates, though. Insurers will charge more for exotic pets as well, given that wild animals are just as — if not more — likely to cause an injury. Some of the pets on the Exotic Pet Index include snakes, chinchillas, sugar gliders, skunks, alligators, or wild feline cubs. Of course, the owner must first ensure that they are complying with the law in terms of owning an exotic pet and that they have the proper licensing. Mitch Kalmanson, a Florida exotic pet insurer, sells multimillion-dollar policies to his clients so that they can have animals like tigers living next door to regular people. “I’ve got circuses, I’ve got fairs, zoological facilities, private facilities, some people who just want to have exotic animals because they have an interest in it,” Kalmanson told ABC’s Nightline.

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