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Sullivan Insurance

Take Steps To Prevent Dog Bites 

The frequency of dog bite claims continues to rise, now accounting for one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims. These claims climbed nearly 9 percent in 2008, costing homeowners insurers $387 million in 2008, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States, and about 18 percent of these require medical care. In 2006, over 31,000 people underwent reconstructive surgery for dog bites. These incidents often lead to lawsuits, with damages awarded for medical bills, lost wages, emotional distress, and disfigurement.

American dog bite law consists of civil and criminal law, found in state statutes and court decisions. The key issue is whether the jurisdiction follows the Old English "one bite rule." With this law, the owner is not held liable for the first bite the dog inflicts. In two-thirds of the states, however, the dog owner is liable for all dog bites, sometimes with a few exceptions (e.g., trespassers). More states are now moving away from the "one bite rule." See dog bite laws for information about your state's laws – this link has a lot of information everyone who owns a dog should know.

Since there is rarely an exclusion or other limitation in homeowners policies specifically targeted to this exposure, liability arising from dog bites is covered unless some other exclusion or provision is applicable. And, with over 30 percent of all liability claims being from this cause, one would expect to see a significant number of coverage disputes involving other coverage limitations where a dog bite was the underlying cause of liability.

Indeed, a legal search of "homeowners insurance" and "dog bites" proves this true by revealing over 100 coverage-related cases. These usually involve the denial of the claim due to various exclusions in the homeowners policy. One of the more common homeowners insurance coverage gaps for these losses pertains to business use of the property. In one case, the insured homeowner rented a barn to be used as a stable, and her dog bit a business guest, resulting in serious facial injuries. In another case, the insured operated a bed and breakfast (B&B) and her dog bit a B&B guest at the home. There was no type of business-related coverage endorsement in either of the applicable homeowners policies. In both cases, the courts upheld the business use exclusion, denying liability coverage.

Insurers often contest dog bite liability claims which occur at a rented or occupied premise that is not an "insured location" since it is not declared. In one case, a grown son of the named insured lived at the insured's rental home that was not listed under the parents' homeowners policy. The son's dog bit a guest, with the son's parents named in the ensuing lawsuit. The court ruled against liability coverage under the parents' homeowners policy since the rental house was not an insured location.

In other cases, the issue of who is an "insured" and who is a "resident" of the household arises. In one case, the named insured's adult half sister lived off and on in the insured's home. The insured's dog bit the half sister, resulting in serious injuries and a subsequent lawsuit. The lower court upheld the intrafamily liability exclusion (BI to named insured or resident family member exclusion) denying liability coverage to the named insured, but this decision was later reversed by the state supreme court.

The sheer number and magnitude of dog bite claims exposes the need to ask your clients about any dog or pet exposures and advise them on taking steps to control their risk. Of course, these cases also illustrate the need to identify and correct coverage gaps in client's homeowners policies. Carefully learning about their activities and related exposures will enable you to mitigate coverage gaps (and E&O claims) arising from all types of liability losses, including dog bites.

Take Steps To Prevent Dog BitesDid you know that dog bites cause about 800,000 injuries requiring immediate medical care in the United States each year? This statistic is based on research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  If your dog bites someone, you can be held legally liable. Fortunately, this loss is usually covered by the homeowners policy, with some exceptions. In fact, about one-third of all liability insurance claims paid by homeowners policies are for dog bites! Even if your insurance covers the claim (and possibly the lawsuit), however, imagine the personal grief you and your family would feel for the injured friend, not to mention the time and trouble you would incur in cooperating with your insurer in defending against the claim, following a tragic event involving your pet.Therefore, preventing such an unfortunate occurrence should be your primary objective, and there are steps you can take to reduce or prevent dog bites. Here are some suggestions from the professionals.

1.                    Carefully consider dog breeds prior to selecting a pet. Some breeds have worse reputations than others, and a veterinarian can help you decide which breeds might best fit your lifestyle.

2.                    Spay or neuter the animal as this often decreases the aggressiveness of dogs.

3.                    Seek a veterinarian's advice quickly if your dog becomes aggressive.

4.                    Socialize your dog from an early age to encourage appropriate behavior.

5.                    Never leave dogs alone with small children.

6.                    Avoid aggressive games with puppies and dogs, such as tug-of-war.

7.                    Do not place your dog in situations where he or she can be teased or feel threatened.

8.                    Train your dog to obey commands.

9.                   If your dog does bite someone, a board-certified plastic surgeon should treat this person to minimize scarring and potential disfigurement.

There is one other loss exposure concerning dogs you should consider. You may face liability claims if your dog gets out into the road and causes or contributes to an auto accident. You can be sued for violation of leash ordinances by allowing your dog to "run at large." Use a well-maintained and sturdy fence or other safeguards to reduce this exposure.

And, if your dog does injure someone despite all your efforts to avoid it, report it to your insurance company immediately to assure your coverage is not jeopardized for late reporting.

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