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Keven Moore on Insurance: When a dog bites, owner also feels the pain – in his pocketbook

Just recently, the Insurance Information Institute and State Farm, the nation’s largest writer of homeowners insurance, said that dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claim dollars paid out in 2013, costing more than $483 million.

When I read that, I had a flashback to the early 1970s and growing up in the Garden Springs neighborhood. I remembered riding on my Schwinn “banana” bike and teasing a neighbor dog. I would get the dog to chase me and then outrun it as I gathered speed going downhill.

One day, however, the dog pounced on me out of nowhere, latching onto my pants leg and causing me to crash into a curb right in front of several neighborhood girls. If I had known a good attorney, I may have been able to sue the dog owner for the damage that occurred to my pride that day.

 (Photo provided)

Even the most docile dogs could bite someone when frightened or when protecting their puppies, owners and food. Ultimately, the responsibility for properly training and controlling a dog rests with the owner. (Photo provided)

Today, I am the responsible owner of a very docile labrador retriever whose only crime is to try to lick strangers to death. But as a good insurance professional, I still realize that she can pose as a liability to my family assets.

Sixty-eight percent of all U.S. households own a total of 83.3 million dogs in the United States, according to the American Pet Products Association. By contrast, there are 4.5 million dog bites that send 885,000 victims to seek medical care each year, according to the American Humane Society. This equates to about 2,425 dog bite victims daily. About 74 people a day require reconstructive surgery as a result of being bitten by a dog.

The average cost per dog bite and dog attacks has climbed more than 45 percent in the last decade, as attorneys have successfully learned how to sink their teeth into many homeowners insurance policies. According to DogBiteLaw.com, dog bites in the U.S. cost more than $1 billion each year, with more than $300 million paid out by homeowners insurance. This leaves about $700 million in costs that are absorbed by dog owners. In the worst cases, dog bites can cause disfigurement and extensive medical treatments, leaving the pet owner’s financial assets vulnerable.

In 2012 alone, the Postal Service says 5,879 letter carriers were attacked by dogs last year. Two of the attacks were fatal, including one in which the carrier was knocked down by a dog and died from head injuries. The other suffered a heart attack.

The number of fatal dog attacks in the U.S. has been going up. The yearly average was 17 in the 1980s and 1990s; in the past six years, the average has been 31. Approximately 92 percent of fatal dog attacks involved male dogs, 94 percent of which were not neutered, and 82 percent of the dog bites treated in the emergency room involved children under 15 years of age.

The two most deadly dog breeds in America are pit bull terriers and rottweilers, and according to DogsBite.org, research shows that during the nine-year period from 2005-2013, pit bulls are far more lethal—killing 176 Americans and accounted for 62 percent of the total recorded deaths (283). Combined, pit bulls and rottweilers accounted for 74 percent of these deaths

Kentucky is a strict liability state for dog bites. KRS 258.235(4) states: “Any owner whose dog is found to have caused damage to a person, livestock or other property shall be responsible for that damage.” This implies that a dog’s owner is strictly liable for any injuries or bites that his or her dog inflicts. The owner is liable even if the dog has never bitten anyone before or acted aggressively in the past.

The bottom line is that dog owners are accountable for the actions of their pets and can be held liable, maybe even criminally liable. That means you as a pet owner can’t claim that you accidentally left the gate or front door open if the dog gets out.

If the owner of the dog owns real estate and has homeowners insurance, there will be insurance coverage in most cases. If the owner of a dog is renting a house, condo or apartment, renters insurance that would cover a dog bite.

Most dog bite victims in the U.S. are children under the age of 15. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Most dog bite victims in the U.S. are children under the age of 15. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Also, depending on the terms of the lease, the landlord who is renting the property may be responsible. If the bite occurs on their property, they are responsible. If the bite occurs at some other location they are responsible. Likewise, if they have homeowners’ insurance that covers a dog bite, that insurance coverage will usually follow the dog.

Most homeowners policies provide $100,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage. If the claim exceeds the limit, the dog owner is personally responsible for all damages above that amount, including legal expenses.

Most insurance companies will insure homeowners with dogs. However, once a dog has bitten someone, it poses an increased risk. In such a case, the insurance company may charge a higher premium or exclude the dog from coverage. Some companies may even require you as a dog owner to sign liability waivers for dog bites. Some will cover a pet if the owner takes the dog to classes aimed at modifying its behavior. This all varies with each insurance carrier, and you need to talk to your insurance agent to sort it all out.

A single lawsuit – even if won – can end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the greater a person’s assets the more potential they are at risk. A standard homeowners policy simply may not be enough, and a good agent will recommend that you consider purchasing an additional personal excess liability policy. Also known as an umbrella liability policy, it protects against personal liabilities from a dog bite and other risk exposures. The amount of umbrella liability coverage usually ranges from $1 million to $10 million and covers broad types of liability.

I still believe that with the right amount of prevention you can reduce your liability and risks of a dog bite claim. The most dangerous dogs are those that fall victims to its master’s shortcomings such as poor training, irresponsible ownership and breeding that foster viciousness or neglect and abuse. To reduce the risk exposure, the following steps are recommended:

1. Consult with a professional (veterinarian, animal behaviorist or responsible breeder) to learn about suitable breeds of dogs for a household and neighborhood.

2. Spend time with a dog before buying or adopting it. Use caution when bringing a dog into a home of with an infant or toddler. Dogs with histories of aggression are inappropriate in households with children.

3. Be sensitive to cues that a child is fearful or apprehensive about a dog and, if so, delay acquiring a dog. Never leave infants or young children alone with any dog.

4. Have the dog spayed or neutered. Studies show that dogs are three times more likely to bite if they are NOT neutered.

5. Socialize the dog so that it knows how to act with other people and animals.

6. Discourage children from disturbing a dog that is eating or sleeping.

7. Play non-aggressive games with the dog, such as “go fetch.” Playing aggressive games like “tug-of-war” can encourage inappropriate behavior.

8. Avoid exposing the dog to new situations where its response may be unknown.

9. Never approach a strange dog and always avoid eye contact with a dog that appears threatening.

10. Adequately secure your pet by not allowing your dog to roam freely. Erect a suitable fence and post warning signs if your dog displays any signs of aggression. Keep dogs close and instruct your children to never let your pet outdoors without adult supervision and a leash.

11. Immediately seek professional advice from veterinarians, animal behaviorists or responsible breeders if the dog develops aggressive or undesirable behaviors.

Remember, even the most docile dogs may bite someone when frightened or when protecting their puppies, owners and food. Ultimately, the responsibility for properly training and controlling a dog rests with the owner.

Be safe, my friends.

Keven Moore is director of Risk Management Services for Roeding Insurance (www.roedinginsurance.com). He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.


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