June 1st, 2011

Last month, State Farm Insurance Company released data detailing the number of dog bite homeowner insurance claims filed in 2010. (State Farm Press Release, It’s not the Breed, It’s the Bite … California Leads Nation in Dog Bite Claims, available here.)

California topped State Farm’s list, both in total number of claims filed (369) and amount paid (nearly $11.3 million), although the data was reported in absolute terms only, and was not normalized by number of State Farm customers per state or state population.

State Farm’s report, released in conjunction with National Dog Bite Prevention Week, highlights the impact dog bites have on communities and the importance of responsible pet ownership.

Nationwide, dog bites account for more than one third of all homeowners insurance liability claims, and totaled $413 million in 2010. (Insurance Information Institute, The Topic: Dog Bite Liability, May 2011, available here.)

The average insurance payout for a dog bite claim in 2010 was $26,166, though much higher amounts for individual cases are not uncommon.  In May of 2010, a San Francisco Bay Area case in which an Alameda pit bull bit and severed a former neighbor’s finger between the first and second knuckles settled for $300,000.   (Read SF Gate article here.)

The predominance of dog bite claims compared with other homeowners insurance claims should cause dog owners to pause and consider their potential liability exposure, adequacy of their insurance coverage, and how they can reduce the chance of a tragic accident.

California law holds dog owners strictly liable for dog bite injuries, regardless of whether the incident occurs on public or private property, provided the victim is not trespassing.  Similarly, dog owners are liable even if their dog has no history of violence, biting, or other vicious behavior.  (California Civil Code section 3342.)  These provisions often leave California dog owners holding a large liability bill, and highlight the importance of adequate insurance coverage.

Most homeowners and renters insurance policies include $100,000 to $300,000 of dog bite liability coverage, leaving the dog owner responsible for any additional expenses, including attorney costs.   Some insurance providers are limiting their coverage for dogs that are considered higher risks based on breed or past behavior.  Once a dog has bitten a victim, insurance providers may increase homeowners or renter’s insurance rates, reduce coverage, or drop a customer entirely unless they find the dog another home or otherwise dispose of it. Additional coverage is sometimes available through umbrella policies.

Dog owners should contact their insurance providers to ensure they are adequately insured. Dog owners who live in rental properties and do not carry renters insurance should consider purchasing such coverage, if for no other reason than to cover claims that may arise from a dog bite accident.   In addition to adequate insurance coverage, dog owners should take steps to minimize the chances their pets might be involved in a biting incident.   The Center for Disease Control as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association offer more information on how to prevent dog bite accidents on each of their websites.

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