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Dog Bite Liability

THE TOPIC

MAY 2014

Sixty-eight percent of U.S. households, or 83.3 million homes, own a pet, according to a 2013/2014 survey from by the American Pet Products Association.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year and about 885,000 require medical attention for these injuries; about half of these are children.

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.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

  • Claims: Dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claim dollars paid out in 2013, costing more than $483 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) and State Farm®. An analysis of homeowners insurance data by the I.I.I. found that the number of dog bite claims nationwide increased 5.5 percent in 2013, while the average cost per claim for the year dropped 6.4 percent. The average cost paid out for dog bite claims nationwide was $27,862 in 2013 compared with $29,752 in 2012. The average cost per claim nationally has risen more than 45 percent in the last decade (2003-2013), which can be attributed to increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards given to plaintiffs, which are still on the upswing. California had the largest number of claims, at 1,919, with an average cost per claim of $33,709. New York had the highest average cost per claim, at $43,122.

ESTIMATED NUMBER AND COST OF DOG BITE CLAIMS NATIONWIDE, 2003-2013

Year Value of claims
($ millions)
Number of claims Average cost
per claim
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
Percent change, 2012-2013 -1.2% 5.5% -6.4%
Percent change, 2003-2013 49.2 2.6 45.4

NUMBER OF U.S. HOUSEHOLDS THAT OWN A PET, BY TYPE OF ANIMAL

(millions)

Pet Number
Bird 6.9
Cat 45.3
Dog 56.7
Horse 2.8
Freshwater fish 14.3
Saltwater fish 1.8
Reptile 5.6
Small animal 6.9

Source: American Pet Products Association's 2013-2014 National Pet Owners Survey.


BACKGROUND

State and Local Legislation: Dog owners are liable for injuries their pets cause if the owner knew the dog had a tendency to bite. In some states, statutes make the owners liable whether or not they knew the dog had a tendency to bite; in others, owners can be held responsible only if they knew or should have known their dogs had a propensity to bite. Some states and municipalities have “breed specific” statutes that identify breeds such as pit bulls as dangerous; in others individual dogs can be designated as vicious.

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

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: On January 26, 2001, two Presa Canario dogs attacked and killed Diane Whipple in the doorway of her San Francisco, California, apartment. Marjorie Knoller, the owner of the dogs, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for keeping a mischievous dog that killed a person. She was sentenced to four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and was ordered to pay $6,800 in restitution. Her husband, Robert Noel, was convicted on lesser charges but also received a four-year prison sentence. Knoller became the first Californian convicted of murder for a dog’s actions. This was only the third time such charges have been upheld in the United States, the first coming in Kansas in 1997.

Insurers are Limiting their Exposure: 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. 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.

© Insurance Information Institute, Inc. - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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