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When Sweet Fifi Bites

Author: Chris Boggs

Depending on the source, there are between 78 to 90 millon dogs in the US. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports 78 million dogs and the Amercian Pet Products Association (APPA) asserts 90 million. Regardless the true number, the insurance industry reported 17,297 dog bite claims in 2018, resulting in $675 million in total liability payment. Although this is a 6 percent decrease from 2017 numbers, industry statistics from the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) show that approximately one-third, if not more, of homeowners' insurance liability claims are attributable to dog bites.

Approximately 4.5 million people were bit by dogs in 2018, and one in five of the victims required medical attention according to the AVMA. And the I.I.I. reports that the average cost of a dog bite claim was $39,017 in 2018 - a 5.3 percent increase over 2017 costs and more than twice the cost in 2003. 


Nature Vs. Nurture: Breed Vs. Training

Animals 24-7 editor, Merritt Clifton, conducted a long-term study of dog bit fatalities to determine if breed mattered. His study covered the period September 1982 to May 2016. During that period 658 documented cases of dog-attack deaths were reviewed. Seventy-eight percent of fatalities were attributable to five breeds, and pit bulls accounted for more than half the fatalities:

  1. Pit bull / pit bull mix 53.5 percent of the fatalities;
  2. Rottweiler / Rottweiler mix 14 percent of the fatalities;
  3. Husky / husky mix 4.3 percent of the fatalities;
  4. German shepherd / German shepherd mix 4 percent of the fatalities; and
  5. Bull mastiff / bull mastiff mix 3 percent of the fatalities.

From 2017 through 2018, pit bulls accounted for 74 percent of dog attack deaths in the US and Canada. Seventy-three of the 99 dog-attack deaths were by pit bulls.

Dog Owner Liability

States treat dog bites differently, applying one of three concepts to govern the liability or responsibility imposed on dog owners:

  • Strict Liability ("Dog Bite Statute"): Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia apply a "Dog Bite Statute." Dog owners in 31 of these states (and DC) are strictly liable for any injury or property damage caused by the dog (a trespasser, someone committing a crime or the victim harassing or teasing the dog may be exceptions). 

    Three "Dog Bite Statute" states apply negligence laws rather than strict liability within their dog-bite statutes. In general, these statutes mandate that the owner has a duty to keep the dog under control and failure to do so could result in civil liability. These states are:

    • Georgia: if the dog is "vicious or dangerous;"
    • Hawaii (applies a mixture of strict liability and negligence): Strictly liable if dog known to be dangerous; but can be found negligent regardless of the "propensity" of the dog to violent behavior; and
    • Tennessee: regardless of the propensity of the dog to violence. 
  • "One-bite" rule: Sixteen states do not have "Dog Bite Statutes." These states apply the "one-bite" rule. In "one-bite" states, the owner is not held liable for the dog's first bite. But once an animal has demonstrated vicious behavior, such as biting or otherwise displayed a "vicious propensity," the owner can be held liable for future bites. Some states have moved away from the absolute application of the one-bite rule and hold owners responsible for any injury, regardless of whether the animal has previously bitten someone, if the dog is of a known dangerous breed (based on nature). These are known as "mixed dog bite statute states" as they apply a mixture of the "one-bite" rule and the strict liability rule based on the breed.
  • Negligence laws: Several "one-bite" states apply the concept of negligence in determining the liability of the owner. Essentially, the dog owner is liable if the injury occurred because the dog owner was unreasonably careless (negligent) in controlling the dog. Four requirements must be met to prove the owner was negligent: 1) the dog's owner had a duty to use reasonable care in handling or controlling the dog; 2) the duty was breached; 3) an injury was inflicted; and 4) the injury was a direct result of the breach of duty. 

Regardless of the law or concept applied, most states do not hold dog owners liable for injury to trespassers.

If a dog owner is statutorily held or judged to be legally responsible for injury or damage, he may be required to pay the injured person's: 1) medical bills; 2) lost wages; 3) pain and suffering; and 4) property damage (if any).

Click here to see dog owner liability rules by state.

Insurer Response

Homeowners' insurers take dog bites very seriously. Both Insurance Services Office (ISO) and American Association of Insurance Services (AAIS) have promulgated dog-bite liability exclusions. And some carriers have developed proprietary dog-bite exclusions (or limitations).

However, some state's Homeowners' rules do not allow the use of a dog bite exclusion. Likewise, some states do not allow carriers to charge additional premiums for the dog bite exposure. Consequently, insurers in these states must underwrite around the exposure. This could mean not accepting risks where there is a known exposure, or nonrenewing insureds when the underwriter becomes aware of an exposure after initial acceptance if this is even an acceptable reason in statute.

Additionally, the law or concept applicable in the state plays a part in the underwriting decision. If the insured is in a "strict liability" state, the carrier is "on the hook" for any and all dog bites. Underwriters with insureds in "one bite" or "negligence law" states may have a bit of "wiggle room" (if the dog bites, the underwriter has a chance to "get off the risk" before another incident).

Regardless of the state, the availability of exclusionary endorsements or the ability to charge a higher premium, insurers are attempting to underwrite the dog exposure by identifying the breed of the dog in question and assessing the extent to which the exposure is increased by that breed. From an underwriting perspective, statistics are more powerful evidence than how gentle and loving the owner claims his pit bull, Fifi, is.

Last Updated: April 12, 2019

National Dog Bite Prevention Week is the first week of April each year - a perfect time to share dog bite prevention information with clients and brush up on claims coverage!

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