No matter how sweet or well-behaved your dog is, mishaps and misunderstandings still happen.
Roughly 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs annually. Even when it’s totally out of character, an unfortunate situation or ill-timed sequence of events could have your canine causing injury to a child in your backyard or a friend visiting your home.
And as the pet parent responsible for your dog, you’ll need to foot the bill for any dog-related injuries.
Does homeowners insurance cover dog bites?
But you don’t need to necessarily pay out of pocket for medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, property fees, and legal fees. That’s where liability insurance comes in.
Liability coverage from a homeowners or renters insurance policy (rather than a pet insurance policy) can help cover expenses in case your dog bites someone, knocks over a house guest, or scares a passerby.
While it’s not exactly what comes top of mind when you’re looking at homeowners or renters insurance options, you’ll want to take into account coverage for dog-related injuries.
How common are dog bite claims?
Dog bite liability claims are more common than you think. Cases are on the rise and costs are rapidly increasing. The Information Insurance Institute’s (III) analysis of homeowners insurance data found that:
• Dog bite claims bumped up from 15,522 in 2017 to 18,123 in 2016, or a 2.2 percent increase.
• The average payout for such claims in the U.S. was $37,051 in 2017, compared with $33,230 in 2016.
• The average payout for claims in the U.S. soared, from $19,162 in 2003 to 37,051 in 2017. (Yup, that’s more than a 90 percent spike.)
• In 2017, homeowners insurers paid a grand total of $686 million.
Why exactly have payouts gone up so much in recent years? According to the III, this is most likely due to soaring medical costs, and a spike in lawsuits. Plus the size of settlements themselves, judgments and jury awards given to plaintiffs are trending upwards.
“Dog bite claims are pervasive, and they continue to increase as do the costs associated with them,” says Jim Whittle, Associate General Counsel and Chief Claims Counsel of the American Insurance Association (AIA).
Here’s what you need to know about protecting yourself if a dog-related injury does happen:
Making sure your homeowners insurance covers dog bites
Dog-related injuries are typically covered under the personal liability portion of a homeowners or renters insurance policy. The coverage ranges from $100,000 to $300,000. Liability limits are shown with two numbers like $30,000 / $90,000, explains Todd Erkis, FSA, CERA, MAAA, and author of What Insurance Companies Don’t Want You to Know. The first number is the maximum that the policy will pay per person. The second number is the maximum it will pay for any one incident. If a claim exceeds your coverage limits, you will be on the line for the damages.
The liability insurance is there to protect your net worth, says Erkis. In other words, if a person has $30,000 in savings and their dog bites someone leading to $30,000 in medical costs and a legal award for pain and suffering, all of their savings could be wiped out. So make sure you get a policy with sufficient coverage to protect your finances.
Read the fine print
If you’re a dog owner, you’ll want to comb through the fine print. Make sure your policy covers dog-related injuries. This varies depending on the state you live in, the type of dog, the insurance carrier, and the And if so, exactly how much.
“Insurance is a competitive business and insurers may take different decisions on the presence of dogs at a property,” says Whittle. “People should inform themselves about what coverage they have for pets at their property, and shop around for the coverage they want and need.”
Renters insurance and dog bites
If you’re renting, you’ll want to make sure your renters insurance policy does include dog-related injuries under the liability protection. And like homeowners insurance, the type of protection and coverage depends on where you live, the carrier, and your particular policy.
Renters insurance usually have a cap of $100,000 for liability coverage. If you’re concerned about not having enough coverage, you might consider an umbrella policy, which ups your existing coverage with your homeowners or renters policy.
You could also opt into a dog liability insurance policy, which, as you might’ve guessed, is coverage specifically for dog-related injuries. Either of these options could help up your limits if it’s not enough, fill in any gaps in coverage, or cover dog bites if it’s not otherwise covered.
Homeowners dog breed restrictions
Dog-related injuries covered by homeowners or renters insurance may not be as comprehensive as you think. While insurers will cover most dog breeds, some will deny you outright coverage for certain breeds deemed as dangerous or have been historically categorized as problematic.
We know, it doesn’t seem fair when your Pit Bull Doris is super sweet to children, certain breeds such as Rottweilers, German Shepherds, and Akitas are considered high risk.
Some insurers may not insure homeowners or renters outright if you own a certain dog breed. Others may determine on a case-by-case basis. If your dog was involved in an injury before, you may not be granted coverage.
If you have questions, ask your insurer before signing up for an insurance policy. Otherwise, you may not have the coverage you need, which could cost you severely.
Given how prevalent the problem is, not surprisingly, insurers are quite interested in the incidence of and reduction in dog bites, explains Whittle. “It’s quite important the risks of dog bites be reflected in insurance rates and underwriting decisions,” he says.
“If insurers are not free to rate and underwrite for this obvious risk, then less risky insureds may bear a greater risk for other people’s dog ownership.” No bueno.
Know when you’re liable
You’re generally liable under three kinds of laws:
• Dog bite statute: You’re automatically liable for any injury or property damage the dog causes
• One-bite rule: In some states, you, the owner, is not responsible for the first dog bite.
• Negligence laws: You’re liable if you were careless in controlling your dog.
In most states, you’re not held liable when someone suffers a dog injury while trespassing on your property. Depending on your policy, you may be covered if the incident happens off your property. Let’s say, in or on a vehicle, at a park or on the sidewalk.
Your premium may spike
Your premium may spike after you file a dog-related injury. Plus, once your dog has bitten someone in the past, the insurer may up your insurance premium, exclude the dog in your coverage, or not offer a renewal. However, the insurer may cover a pet if you agree to take your dog to behavior modification classes, or if you agree to restrain the dog in some fashion.
How do dog bite liability claims work?
Want to make sure you file a claim correctly and ensure you get proper payout? Then avoid these common mistakes with dog-related injuries and liability insurance:
• Document everything. Take photos of the injury, the scene, of the dog, and anything else that helps verify exactly what happened. This will help you file a claim smoothly.
• Have the injured person seek medical attention immediately. Even if the person just suffered minor scrapes and bruises they’ll want to go to the doctor just in case. This is important in case they suffer ailments related to the incident down the line. Plus, it’s a solid source of documentation. This will come in handy when you file a claim.
Prevent dog injuries in the first place
The classic adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” rings in true. To avoid canine-related injuries from happening in the first place, do the following:
• Make sure your pup’s breed is a suitable one the area of the country and neighborhood you live in. An ill fit could lead to stress or aggression in your pup.
• Keep your dog leashed while out in public, especially in unfamiliar surroundings
• Practice caution if your dog is in a new situation
• Teach kids how to properly behave and treat dogs: no ear-tugging, or getting in the face of the dog
• Teach young ones not to disturb a dog while it’s asleep or eating
• Don’t leave children under 10 unattended with dogs
• Train and socialize your dog well, and start early!
• Spay or neuter your pup. It turns out that if your dog is spayed or neutered, they’ll be less likely to bite.
• Know what triggers aggression or fear in your dog.