Beware of Dog (Liability)

April 19, 2010 - For many people, dogs are family members. So when dog bites occur, the associated liability claim and result – potentially having to give the dog away – can be heartbreaking. 

The best way to prevent such a tragedy is to keep dog bites from ever happening. The Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) and the Humane Society suggest that you:

  • Consult with a professional (e.g., veterinarian, animal behaviorist, or responsible breeder) to learn about suitable breeds of dogs for your household and neighborhood.
  • Spend time with a dog before buying or adopting it. Use caution when bringing a dog into a home of with an infant or toddler. Dogs with histories of aggression are inappropriate in households with children.
  • Be sensitive to cues that a child is fearful or apprehensive about a dog and, if so, delay acquiring a dog. Never leave infants or young children alone with any dog.
  • Have your dog spayed or neutered. Studies show that dogs are three times more likely to bite if they are not neutered.
  • Socialize your dog so that it knows how to act with other people and animals.
  • Avoid exposing your dog to new situations in which you are unsure of its response.
  • Teach children pet safety tips and review them regularly. Children should always ask the owner for permission before they pet a dog.
  • Always practice safe behavior around dogs. Like many kinds of pets, dogs need to be respected as animals that, under certain conditions, could hurt you. Never tease a dog. Teasing can make a dog angry or frustrated enough to bite.

“Most dog bite liability claims happen unexpectedly, with dogs that aren’t known to bite,” comments Terry McConnell, vice president and manager, Personal Lines Underwriting. “We see stories like those of a mom who’s making lunch and doesn’t see a child’s friend pull the dog’s ear in the next room. The result is a dog bite – and a claim. They’re really very sad stories.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs annually, resulting in an estimated 800,000 injuries that require medical attention. These injuries also account for one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims, according to I.I.I.

A recent I.I.I. study also found that the number of dog bite liability claims generally remains about the same from year to year, but the cost of those claims goes up nearly $350 million annually. The average cost per claim continues to rise because of increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards, which have risen well beyond the rate of inflation in recent years.

Insurance Coverage

Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability. If a claim exceeds the policy’s limit, though, the dog owner would be personally responsible for all damages above that amount, including legal expenses.

The severity of claims, and their associated cost, usually varies by breed.

“A claim resulting from a beagle that bit probably will result in minimal costs,” says McConnell. “Costs may cover an emergency room visit, maybe a Tetanus shot, maybe some stitches. But claims resulting from a Rottweiler bite have cost well over a hundred thousand dollars, in part because certain dogs are much more powerful and can cause significant injuries, especially to a child.”

Regardless of breed, though, any dog can bite. Even normally docile dogs may bite when they are frightened or when protecting their puppies, owners or food. The key to preventing dog bites, experts say, is to be a responsible dog owner and always practice safe behavior when you’re around unfamiliar dogs.

The laws governing dog bite liability vary by state and, like all aspects of personal lines insurance, coverage is regulated by individual states. To review your insurance policy or inquire about ERIE’s coverage, contact an Erie Insurance Agent.

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