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Insurance 101

Your dog's bite could bankrupt you

If your pet attacks someone, you could owe tens of thousands of dollars -- or more -- and your insurer might not pay up. You could even land in jail.
By Liz Pulliam Weston

The Santa Rosa, Calif., case was horrifying: A 90-pound American bulldog attacked a woman walking her own dog to a school bus stop to meet her children, biting off her nose.

The bulldog's owner insisted the animal had never bitten anyone or even behaved aggressively the previous times it had escaped from her yard. That didn't do much to sway the judge.

The owner was sentenced to four months in jail and 100 hours of community service.

The victim, who endured several surgeries to rebuild her face, was later awarded $900,000 in a civil settlement. Her husband and children were awarded $33,000 each, for a total settlement of $1 million -- the upper limit of the dog owner's insurance policy. 

Clearly, this was a severe case, both in the intensity of the attack and in the consequences for everyone concerned -- including the bulldog, which was euthanized.

Understand your risks

But all dog owners need to understand their potential liability should their animal bite, maul or, heaven forbid, kill someone. A single bite could cost you tens of thousands of dollars -- a lawsuit hundreds of thousands -- and your insurance coverage might not apply. If the attack is especially serious, you could even go to jail.
Consider:

  • Dog bites make up one-third of all homeowner insurance liability claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute, and cost insurers $356 million in 2007.
  • The average cost of a dog-bite claim was $24,511 in 2007, the institute found. That's 11.5% more than the year before and 28% more than in 2003.
  • More than 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs annually, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly a million of them need medical attention. Some die. In 2007, 32 people in the U.S. were killed by dogs, according to Los Angeles attorney Kenneth Phillips, who specializes in dog-bite cases.

A few fatal attacks receive national attention, such as the case of a San Francisco woman killed outside her apartment door in 2001 by her neighbors' two Presa Canarios. The married attorneys who owned the dogs were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and the wife was additionally convicted of second-degree murder.

"Because of the death of Diane Whipple, there was a raising of consciousness" about the problem of vicious dogs, Phillips said. "That case was so notorious. . . . Here are two people (the dog owners) who supposedly have brains in their heads, and they were so stupid when it came to those dogs."

Prison sentences aren't the only sign that tolerance for biting dogs is waning. Some insurers have reacted to the rising cost of dog-bite claims by refusing to cover certain breeds.

The ones most often blacklisted include:

  • Pit bulls.
  • Dobermans.
  • Rottweilers.
  • Akitas.
  • Chows.
  • Wolf hybrids.

Other insurers provide coverage for all breeds, but most change the rules once a dog has bitten someone. Then the companies might demand a higher premium or require the owner to sign a waiver that excludes the dog from coverage, leaving the owner uncovered in case of a dog-bite claim or lawsuit.

Legal standards for owner liability also vary. Some states have "one bite" laws that limit liability for people whose animals bite someone for the first time. Most hold owners responsible for any damage their animals do, whether or not there was a history of attacks or aggression.

And criminal charges, although relatively rare, can be filed if an attack was particularly severe and the owner is judged to have been unreasonably careless or negligent.

In any case, your risk factor for lawsuits and criminal charges increases if your dog has already bitten someone or has a history of behaving aggressively. Unfortunately, many owners of aggressive dogs are in denial about the risks their animals pose.

Their dogs may have chased mail carriers, cornered elderly neighbors and terrified every child on the block, but the owners will insist their Fido’s wouldn't hurt a fly.

"I always see something in the dog's history that was a warning sign," Phillips said. "Either the dog owner does something that created the circumstances that led to the attack, or plenty of evidence of viciousness was presented to the owner and they've chosen not to see it."

If this describes you, you need to snap out of it. Yes, you love your dog, but you're failing to understand the danger that aggressive animals pose to your family, your neighbors and your finances.

Limit your liability

If you are or want to be a dog owner, here's what you can do to limit your risk:
Research breeds before you buy. Yes, the owners of many breeds blacklisted by insurers will insist their animals are cream puffs, but you should understand that some animals pose greater risks than others. Talk with a trusted vet about which breeds are most appropriate for your family and lifestyle. 

Be honest with your insurer. Not telling your insurer you own a dog is a big risk. If the dog hurts someone, you may not be covered, particularly if your breed is blacklisted by that company. If your insurer doesn't cover your animal, another might.

Do the right thing. Spaying or neutering does more than ensure that more unwanted puppies aren't brought into the world. It also dramatically reduces the chances that a dog will bite.

Invest in some training. A dog needs to understand its role in your family "pack." All kinds of behavioral problems can result if it doesn't. Ask your vet for a list of respected trainers or get a referral to a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, who has specialized training in animal behavior.

Take sensible precautions. No dog, no matter how docile, should be left alone with an infant or small child. Keep your dog under tight control when introducing it to new people and new situations. Avoid playing games, like tug of war, that encourage aggression. Throw a ball instead or take the dog for a walk on a leash.

Get real. A dog that repeatedly snaps or lunges at people isn't being "protective"; it's being aggressive. There may be a medical cause, or the dog may need training, or both. Don't make excuses. Make appointments with your vet and a trainer.

Don't forget leashes and fences. Though they are not mitigating factors in a lawsuit, spending a few dollars on a leash or a few hundred on a good fence -- could help prevent an attack in the first place.

Get adequate coverage. Most homeowner’s insurance policies come with liability coverage that tops out at $300,000. You'll probably want more. A $1 million "umbrella," or personal liability, policy typically costs about $300 a year and is a good investment if you're at greater risk for lawsuits -- which, as a dog owner, you are. If you’re net worth is close to or more than a million opt for even more coverage. A good rule of thumb is to have liability coverage that's twice your net worth.

 

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