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Insurance & Lawsuit Considerations for Homeowners with Dogs

More than 30 percent of homeowners insurance claims result from dog bites. In 2011, insurers paid out more than $450 million for dog bite claims. Research shows that the average payout for a dog bite claim was about $29,000 in 2011. That number reflects more than a 12 percent increase since 2010. Between the years of 2003 and 2011, the average cost of a dog bite claim increased by more than 50 percent. This increase was due to rising medical costs and larger settlement award policies. However, awards have risen far above the normal rate of inflation. This information should have every homeowner who owns a dog concerned.

There are three types of laws regarding dog owner liability, but not every type of law applies in each state.

One Bite Rule
In some states, a dog’s first biting incident does not mean an owner will be held liable. However, the second incident will not be excused. Owners will be liable for dogs showing vicious propensity, which means such dogs repeatedly show aggressive behavior and try to bite others. Although some states still allow one bite to go unpunished, many states are doing away with this rule and holding owners liable for all incidents.

Dog Bite Statute
This law states that dog owners are liable for all injuries or damages resulting from a dog bite, and provocation of the dog is not considered.

Negligence Laws
Some states rule that dog owners are liable only if they are careless in controlling the dog. For example, a person who is bitten after entering a yard uninvited may not have a case, but a neighbor who is bitten when the owner is present and fails to restrain the dog will have a case. In almost every state, dog owners are not liable for injuries of trespassers who are bitten. This is especially true if the owner displays signs warning others that a dog is on the premises.

When owners are liable for dog bites, they must reimburse the injured party for lost wages, medical bills, property damage and pain or suffering related to the bite. Although some people buy dogs to protect their properties, security systems and deadbolt locks can be less expensive. In addition to this, these features can actually lower insurance premiums.

This does not mean homeowners should take their beloved pets to the pound. There are ways to stay properly insured and avoid costly legal battles. Most liability policies cover between $100,000 and $300,000, so homeowners are responsible for any amount beyond that. Keep in mind that the no-fault medical coverage is also awarded. Although most insurers are willing to work with dog owners, they will issue a higher premium after the first biting incident. In some cases, the dog may be excluded from coverage. Some policies exclude certain breeds that are known to have vicious tendencies. Not all insurers will drop the dog, but some may require dog owners to take behavior classes with their pets.

Since many lawsuits exceed the maximum insurance allowance, it is best for homeowners with dogs to buy an umbrella policy. This type of insurance is similar to a safety net. When the maximum benefits in the homeowners policy are spent, the umbrella policy covers additional expenses up to a certain amount. Umbrella liability usually ranges between $1 million and $10 million. In addition to being properly insured with homeowners and umbrella policies, it is wise to take steps to prevent dog bites. The following tips are helpful:

– Purchase a muzzle for the dog to wear when introducing it to new people. Many pet stores sell muzzles that flex enough for the dog to drink water, breathe or vomit, so they are not dangerous to the animal.

– Keep the dog confined while guests are present. Dogs can stay in crates, other rooms or outdoors.

– Never leave the dog alone with visitors’ children. Dogs think differently than humans and may bite fearful children or timid adults.

– Enroll the dog in professional behavior training and socialization classes.

– Have the dog spayed or neutered to reduce hormones related to aggression.