By David Colmans
The Westminster Dog Show recently wrapped up its 2010 event in New York City, and a cute Scottie was the big winner.
That’s one aspect of the Man’s Best Friend story. Here’s another one that’s not so pretty, but a great deal more relevant to you and me than the nation’s most well-known dog show.
This is the dog-bites-man, woman or child story and it happens, believe it or not, to more than 4.7 million people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
What’s scary is that estimates indicate that 800,000 injuries result in the need for medical attention, and even scarier, more than one-half of these bites occur on the owners’ property.
Dog bite liability can be serious not only for the individual bitten but for the owner of the animal as well. The Insurance Information Institute (III) reports that between 2003 and 2008, the percentage increase was nearly 9 percent for the value of homeowner claims regarding dog bites, going from $324.2 million in 2003 to $387.2 million in 2008.
Yet the number of claims started going down from 2003 with 16,919 to 14,531 in 2007. In 2008, the number of bites went up to 15,823. That resulted in an overall increase of bites by 8.89 percent between 2003 and 2008.
As one might expect, the average cost per claim reported by the III went from $19,162 in 2003 to $24,461 in 2008.
News stories appear to focus on the so-called dangerous dog attacks such as pit bulls but these bites go way beyond one or two breeds.
What homeowners and renters need to know about state laws relating to animal bites is that there are two general categories of legislation in effect. About one-third of the states and the District of Columbia have strict legal liability laws for injuries caused by their dogs. Several states, including Georgia, have a variation of what is known as the “One Free Bite” concept. This generally means the dog owner is responsible for an injury caused by a dog if the owner knew the dog was likely to cause that type of injury — in this case, the victim must prove the owner knew the dog was dangerous. After one bite, the owner’s liability is clear.
Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability and most provide $100,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage. This usually means that if the claim exceeds policy limits, the dog owner is responsible for all damages above the limit amounts.
Pet owners should know the importance of animal bite laws and how they work in the state where they live or house the animal. This is another very good reason to talk with your agent or company about the details of your policy as it relates to liability for animal bite injuries or death.
The fact is that most homeowners, up to 95 percent, typically have homeowners insurance whereas only about 50 percent of renters typically obtain renters insurance. The difference may be that renters don’t know that the landlord is not responsible for the renter’s contents. The renter can only be protected for contents and liability coverage with a renter’s policy.
Keep in mind that once a dog has bitten someone, it poses an increased risk. The insurer might recommend the homeowner or renter find a new home for the animal. The insurer might also increase the cost of liability insurance or, in some cases, may either non-renew the owner’s policy or exclude the dog from coverage.
In most states, dog owners are not liable for trespassers who are injured by a dog. On the other hand, a dog owner who is legally responsible for an injury to a person or property may be responsible for reimbursing the injured person for medical bills, time off work if applicable, and property damage.
As is the case in most similar liability situations, ignorance of the law is not an excuse.
That’s why understanding the terms of your policy is very important. It could save you a painful bite in your wallet.
David Colmans is the executive director of the Georgia Insurance Information Service. Contact him at (770) 565-3806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.