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Dog Bite Liability

Sixty-two percent of U.S. households, or 72.9 million homes, own a pet, according to a 2011 survey from by the American Pet Products Association.

Over the years, many states have passed laws with stiff penalties for owners of dogs that cause serious injuries or deaths. In about one-third of states, owners are "strictly liable" for their dogs' behavior, while in the rest of the country they are liable only if they knew or should have known their dogs had a propensity to bite (known as the "one free bite" principle).

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

  • Lawsuits: During the summer of 2011 a Washington Superior Court jury awarded a $2.2 million verdict -- $100,000 in medical bills and $2.1 million for pain and suffering -- to a woman who was attacked in her home near Tacoma, Washington, by two neighborhood pitbulls. The plaintiffs’ attorney sued the dogs’ owners, whose homeowners policies were limited to $100,000 each, and the county for failing to declare the dogs a potential danger under a local ordinance. The county is appealing the verdict.
  • Study: The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that 337,526 people in the U.S. were injured by dog bites in 2009, up slightly from 333,235 the previous year. The center is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • A December 2010 report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality indicates that the number of Americans hospitalized because of dog bites increased by nearly 100 percent over a 15-year period. In 2008 approximately 9,500 Americans received serious dog bites, compared with approximately 5,100 in 1993. The increase was far greater than population growth, and pet ownership increased only slightly during the period. Experts were not able to explain the increase. Children under five and adults 65 and older were more likely to be hospitalized after a bite. Nearly 50 percent of those hospitalized required treatment for skin and tissue infections and more than half received such procedures as skin grafts or wound debridement, with treatment costing an average of $18,200 per patient.
  • Claims: Dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims paid out in 2011, costing nearly $479 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.). State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, the largest writer of homeowners insurance in the U.S., paid out more than $109 million as a result of its nearly 3,800 dog bite claims in 2011. An analysis of homeowners insurance data by the I.I.I. found that the average cost paid out for dog bite claims was $29,396 in 2011, up 12.3 percent from $26,166 in 2010. From 2003 to 2011 the cost of the average dog bite claim increased by 53.4 percent. The number of claims rose 3.3 percent from 15,770 in 2010 to 16,292 in 2011.

 

ESTIMATED NUMBER AND COST OF DOG BITE CLAIMS, 2003-2011
Year Value of claims
($ millions)
Number of claims Average cost
per claim
2003 $324.2 16,919 $19,162
2004 319.0 15,630 20,406
2005 321.1 14,295 22,464
2006 322.3 14,661 21,987
2007 356.2 14,531 24,511
2008 387.2 15,823 24,461
2009 412.0 16,586 24,840
2010 412.6 15,770 26,166
2011 478.9 16,292 29,396
Percent change, 2010-2011 16.1% 3.3% 12.3%
Percent change, 2003-2011 47.7% -3.7% 53.4%

Source: Insurance Information Institute, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company.

 
NUMBER OF U.S. HOUSEHOLDS THAT OWN A PET, BY TYPE OF ANIMAL
(millions)
Pet Number
Bird 5.7
Cat 38.9
Dog 46.3
Equine 2.4
Freshwater fish 11.9
Saltwater Fish 0.7
Reptile 4.6
Small animal 5.0

Source: American Pet Products Association's 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey.

 

 

TOTAL NUMBER OF PETS OWNED IN THE U.S., BY TYPE OF ANIMAL
(millions)
Pet Number
Bird 16.2
Cat 86.4
Dog 78.2
Equine 7.9
Freshwater fish 151.1
Saltwater fish 8.6
Reptile 13.0
Small animal 16.0

Source: American Pet Products Association's 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey.

 

BACKGROUND

State Legislation: Dog owners in about a number of states are legally liable for deaths or injuries caused by their dogs. At least two states, Pennsylvania and Michigan, have laws that prohibit insurers from canceling or denying coverage to the owners of particular dog breeds. The American Kennel Club also reports that many municipalities have enacted bans on specific breeds. Several states, however, have laws barring municipalities and counties from targeting individual breeds.

Insurers generally oppose legislation that would require changes to their dog breed practices. They contend that government public health studies and the industry’s claims histories show that some breeds are more dangerous than others and are higher loss risks.

Criminal Penalties: On January 26, 2001, two Presa Canario dogs attacked and killed Diane Whipple in the doorway of her San Francisco, California, apartment. The owner of the dogs, Marjorie Knoller, a San Francisco lawyer, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and 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 of two 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. Most policies provide $100,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage. If the claim exceeds the limit, the dog owner is responsible for all damages above that amount, including legal expenses. Most insurance companies insure homeowners with dogs. However, once a dog has bitten someone, it poses an increased risk. In that instance, the insurance company may suggest that the homeowner find the dog a new home, or may charge a higher premium, nonrenew the homeowner’s insurance policy, or exclude the dog from coverage.

Many 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 biting 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. It is unlikely that insurers will begin offering specialty insurance policies just for dog bites since the cost of such policies would be prohibitive.

Dog Owners’ Liability: Dog owners are liable for injuries their pets cause if the owner knew the dog had a tendency to cause that kind of injury; if a state statute makes the owner liable, whether or not the owner knew the dog had a tendency to cause that kind of injury; or if the injury was caused by unreasonably carelessness on the part of the owner.

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.

In most states, dog owners aren't 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, time off work, pain and suffering and property damage.

© Insurance Information Institute, Inc. - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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