Insurance Companies Balk at Covering Dangerous Dogs

Dogs that bite people can cause disfigurement, broken bones, amputations, emotional trauma and even death. While the psychological aspects of dog bites are significant, the economic costs are also high. Injuries from dog bites and attacks may require surgery, hospitalization, physical therapy and counseling.

If the dog owner owns a home, there may be homeowners insurance that may provide dog bite victims a source of recovery for the injuries and damages they have endured. Additionally, if the dog owner is a renter, a renter's policy may also provide a source of recovery for the victim.

The purpose of the insurance policy is to help make the victim whole for their physical and emotional pain and suffering, and the economic losses sustained as a result of the dog bite and attack. Another purpose of the policy is to make sure that dog owners do not lose their personal assets because of the attack and bite of their dog. The recent trend of insurance companies refusing to insure so-called dangerous dog breeds, however, makes it more difficult for victims of dog bites and attacks to secure compensation for their injuries and losses and also exposes the dog owners to loss of their personal assets.

The Impact of Dog Bites on the Insurance Industry

Approximately one-third of all homeowner's insurance claims are related to dog attacks, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Insurance companies pay over $300 million a year for dog bite claims.

In response to figures like these, many insurance companies have reevaluated their coverage of certain dog breeds. Some companies now require prospective clients to sign liability waivers for their dogs. These waivers result in the dog owner being uninsured for the damage the dog does in the event of a bite or attack. The personal assets of the dog owner become at risk to loss. Other insurance companies refuse altogether to offer homeowners insurance to the owners of certain dog breeds. In such cases, pet owners have several choices:

  • Search for alternative insurance providers
  • Secure expensive, separate insurance for the dog
  • Give up the dog to a shelter
  • Go without insurance for the dog
  • Run the risk of being personally responsible for damage done in a bite and attack and losing personal assets

Paying out of pocket rather than relying on insurance after a dog bite could be financially devastating for a pet owner. Not having insurance or adequate insurance limits will require the victim to proceed against the personal assets of the dog owner.

The dog breeds that insurance companies have identified as dangerous or vicious vary, but many lists include:

  • Chow chows
  • Rottweilers
  • Doberman pinschers
  • Akitas
  • Wolf hybrids
  • Presa Canarios
  • Staffordshire bull terriers
  • Pit bulls
  • German shepherds

Working With Insurance Companies

Not all insurance companies refuse to cover certain dog breeds. Indeed, some will cover any dog. Others will request a pet interview, in which they investigate the dog's training, temperament and treatment, in addition to whether the dog is spayed or neutered.

Insurance companies will use whatever tactic is available to attempt to deny and defeat a victim's claim, even if it means exposing their own insured's personal assets. In a recent California dog bite case, a six-year-old boy was attacked by an apparent chow, sustaining severe injuries. The pet owner's insurance company initially denied the boy's claim because the dog owner's policy specifically excluded chows. Fortunately, the child's attorney, David Beeson, had taken pictures of the dog soon after the attack. One of the photos showed the dog's pink tongue. The pink tongue proved that the dog was missing the most distinctive characteristic of the chow — a black or bluish tongue — and the insurance company reversed its decision and paid the policy limits to the child.

Breed-Specific Legislation

Some states, counties and cities have enacted breed-specific legislation. These laws identify and restrict certain dog breeds because of their history of, or propensity for, violence. Some laws ban such breeds outright; others mandate that owners of dangerous dogs spay or neuter their pets or keep them muzzled in public.

Many dog owners argue that it is the owner, rather than the breed of the dog, that determines the dog's behavior, and proper training, discipline and lifestyle are the most important influences. Others, however, believe that certain kinds of dogs, especially those that are bred to fight, must be banned to protect the public.

With the changes in insurers' approach to certain dog breeds and the prevalence of breed-specific legislation, many dog owners are feeling the effects of the rising sentiment against dangerous dogs.

Regardless of the dog's breed, all responsible dog owners should have an adequate insurance policy providing coverage for the victim and asset protection for the pet owner in the event the dog bites or attacks another animal or person. Even the most docile and even-tempered animal can bite and attack.

California Dog Bite Laws

California has very strict dog bite laws. When a dog bites a person who is in a public place or lawfully in a private place, the dog owner is liable for the victim's injuries. The pet owner does not escape responsibility because the dog has never bitten before or provided any reason to suspect that it would bite a person.

If the dog owner knew that the dog had bitten before or had a dangerous nature, the owner could also be held liable for punitive damages. Punitive damages are additional money paid to the victim, designed to punish the dog owner for his or her actions.

Because California's dog bite laws are so strict, homeowners insurance or renters insurance for dog owners is all the more important — both for the protection of the dog owner's assets and compensation for the victim of the attack.