Dog bites can be extremely serious, leaving victims with lasting scars, disfigurement and permanent injuries. The states handle dog bite cases differently with some following what is known as the one-bite rule and others, such as California, instead holding dog owners strictly liable when their dogs attack. Because traditional homeowners and commercial general liability policies cover owners for dog bites, some insurance companies are now taking steps to minimize or avoid paying these types of damages completely.
Strict liability for dog owners in many states including California
The civil dog bite statute is found at California Civil Code section 3342. Under subsection (a), owners are held liable when their dogs bite anyone who is legally present on their property or in a public place. The statute clearly states that owners will be liable regardless if they knew or had reason to know about their dog’s propensity for aggression. This means that even if a dog has never bitten a person before and then does, the dog’s owner can be held to be civilly liable for the injuries the bitten person suffers. While many states still require that the dog owner have some type of notice of a dog’s “dangerous propensities” (the so-called “first bite rule”), many states have adopted this “strict liability” standard and impose legal liability on a dog owner without any prior warning that their animal could bite someone.
Insurance and dog bite cases
The Insurance Information Institute, an organization representing the interests of the insurance industry, reports that the cost of dog bite claims has risen even though the number of claims that are filed has fallen. In 2015, the average claim was $37,214, up 16 percent from $32,072 in 2014. The increased costs were largely due to the increasing cost of medical care. Each year, around 4.5 million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs, and almost 20 percent of those incidents result in the need for medical attention. The insurance industry paid out nearly $573.1 million in claims due to dog bite injuries in 2015 alone.
Insurance policies and coverage for dog bites
Historically, a homeowner or business owner could rely on their insurance policies to pay for the victim’s medical expenses when the property owner’s dog bit the victim on private property. Because of the rising costs of dog bites industry-wide, the insurance industry has started changing the manner in which companies approach dog bites and coverage. Some companies have started to include provisions specifically excluding coverage for dog bites. Other companies now restrict coverage, disallowing it for bites caused by specific breeds of dogs.
Importance of reviewing insurance policies for coverage
Homeowners and business owners would do well to carefully check their policies to see if dog bites are excluded from their coverage. If a dog bites a person who is a guest, a customer or one who is legally on the property for his or her job, the dog’s owner will be held strictly liable under the dog bite statute in California. If the homeowner’s policy or commercial general liability policy excludes coverage for dog bites, the homeowner or business owner may still be held personally liable for the injuries and losses suffered by the bitten person. This could potentially place the homeowner’s or business owner’s personal assets and property at risk, meaning he or she could lose his or her home, business, savings or other assets.
If a person who owns a dog reviews his or her policy and sees that dog bites are excluded, he or she would be wise to talk to the insurance company about adding additional coverage specifically for dog bites. If the company doesn’t offer additional coverage for dog bites, the person may want to shop around for an insurance company that does. It is important to do this even if a person believes his or her dog is docile and would never hurt anyone. With strict liability, one bite is all it takes to lead to potential financial ruin without coverage.