Homeowners Insurance – Don't Get Bitten by Homeowners Liability

Man and woman’s best friend is everywhere. Nearly 40 percent of American households include at least one dog. The dog population of the United States has now stands at 74.8 million, an average of 1.7 dogs for each of the 43 million dog-owning households. Like all domesticated animals, dogs are the descendants of wild creatures, and from time to time that wildness shows its teeth. Each year, dogs bite 4.7 million people—about 1.5 percent of the population—according to the Center for Disease Control.

Some of these bites are warning nips, letting the humans know they crossed a line, getting too close to the dog’s food, puppies, or owner. About a sixth of these bites (800,000) are severe enough to require medical attention. Almost half of these (386,000) end up in emergency rooms, making dog bites the second leading cause of emergency room visits. (Softball/baseball injuries are the number one cause of emergency room visits.)

About half the dog bite victims requiring emergency room treatment are children, with the median age of dog bite victims being 15. The highest concentration of dog bite victims are boys 5 to 9 years old. Because children are not as tall as adults, they often are bitten above the shoulders. Fully 73 percent of children treated for dog bites in emergency rooms have been bitten in the neck or face. Only 30 percent of adults are bitten above the shoulders. About 30 people die from dog bites each year, or about 0.0002 percent of the total number of dog bite victims.

The owner of the biting dog can be held liable for damages, although the laws governing dog bite liability vary from state to state. Most liability claims arise from negligence that causes injury. For example person who slips and falls in a home due to their own carelessness or clumsiness do not have grounds to sue. However, if an injury occurred because the homeowner failed to maintain a safe property, then a claim of liability often will succeed. Negligence can be shown regarding a dog bite if the dog has a history of aggressive behavior. Some states have passed laws that remove the negligence requirement and make the dog owner liable for all dog bites. California has such a “one-bite” law. It reads, in part:

The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.

Dog owners typically are not liable when dogs bite individuals who attack them or are bitten during the commission of a crime against the owner. Bites to professionals who handle dogs, such dog groomers and veterinarians are also excluded from liability claims.

Homeowners insurance used to offer coverage for claims arising from dog bites. In recent years, however, insurance companies have moved to limit their coverage. Some exclude all liability from dog bites. Others cover most dogs, but exclude certain breeds from coverage, including Rottweiler, American Pit Bull Terrier, Doberman Pinscher, German Shepherd, Saint Bernard, and others. The CDC disagrees with this approach, stating “A CDC study on fatal dog bites lists the breeds involved in fatal attacks over 20 years. It does not identify specific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill, and thus is not appropriate for policy-making decisions related to the topic.”

It is always essential to read your homeowner insurance policy thorough, especially regarding exclusions. If you own a dog, make sure dog bite liability is covered. If it is, make sure that your breed of dog is covered. If dog bite coverage is not included in your coverage, ask your agent if you can add a liability rider. A dog bite can occur in milliseconds. You do not want to find out too late that you have been bitten by a lack of homeowners insurance coverage.

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