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'Blacklisted' breeds could take bite out of home insurance coverage

By Daniel Workman

Every 40 seconds, a dog bite victim in the United States seeks medical attention, according to plastic surgeon Dr. Michael Bermant. Children represent 60 percent of those injured, and 77 percent of dog attacks target the victim's face.

Canine attacks killed 30 Americans in 2009, according to DogBiteLaw.com.

For homeowners who are also dog owners, it's important to determine whether a home insurance policy covers -- or excludes -- injuries caused by their pets. In fact, some insurance companies may exclude dogs based on breed.

Types of dog bite insurance

Auto liability insurance usually covers losses caused by dogs in a vehicle, according to DogBiteLaw.com.

More often, dog bite damages are payable under insurance policies for:

  • Homeowners.
  • Renters.
  • Motor home owners.
  • Condominium owners.

Other common forms of dog bite coverage include employee insurance, landlord insurance, and commercial general liability insurance for stores and businesses.

The Insurance Information Institute reports that property casualty insurers paid $412 million for dog bite claims during 2009. That amount represents one-third of all home insurance claims.

Is my dog eligible for coverage?

Depending on state laws and insurance company policies, some insurers exclude certain breeds. Others decline individual dogs with previous histories of aggressive behavior -- especially if a child was the victim.

For example, Allstate home insurance policies issued in Ohio exclude pit bulls, Doberman pinschers and Rottweilers. Farmers Insurance covers all dog breeds but may refuse coverage for specific dogs that are prone to hostile outbursts.

Liberty Mutual takes a hybrid approach. Risk factors for individual dogs are analyzed for breeds that the company classifies as potentially dangerous, namely:

  • Akitas.
  • Alaskan malamutes.
  • Presa Canarios.
  • Chow chows.
  • Doberman pinschers.
  • German shepherds.
  • Pit bull terriers.
  • Rottweilers.
  • Siberian huskies.

Liberty Mutual also assesses the pooch's temperament, any obedience training, prior claims and even vaccination records before deciding whether a dog can be covered.

What if my dog is declined?

Pet owners who do not qualify for dog bite coverage under traditional insurance policies can apply for dog owner liability insurance , available from special-risk underwriters.

Lester Kalmanson Agency specializes in insuring rare and unusual risks, from alligators and zebras to pit bulls. Owners of extremely high-risk dogs may be subject to high premiums and deductibles or declined coverage.

Like Kalmanson, Evolution Insurance Brokers sells higher-risk dog owner liability insurance nationwide.

The Ohio Insurance Exchange offers coverage for hard-to-insure canines in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Florida.

Consumers should ask the special-risk underwriter whether losses that happen away from the dog owner's property are covered.

How much dog bite insurance do I need?

Under home insurance policies, the maximum for dog bite charges generally ranges from $100,000 to $300,000. Separate dog owner liability policies usually provide up to $100,000 in canine liability protection.

From 2003 to 2009, the average cost of dog bite claims rose by 30 percent to $24,840, according to the Insurance Information Institute. However, overall expenses can be much higher. Lawsuits can boost claim settlements by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The risk of financial hardship is more severe in the 30 strict-liability states plus District of Colombia, where laws make dog owners strictly responsible for dog attacks, according to DogBiteLaw.com. Other states waive liability for a 'first bite' attack or provide a mix of strict liability and the more lenient first-bite laws.

Dog bite insurance shoppers should ask a legal professional which type of state liability laws would apply to their pets.

Do I need dog bite umbrella insurance?

Umbrella insurance can cover a wide range of claims not payable under a number of underlying auto and home insurance policies.

An umbrella liability policy extends the maximum payable for dog bite claims up to $1 million, and covers expenses otherwise ineligible under the basic auto and homeowner policies. An umbrella policy also affords protection against lawsuits from dog bite victims.

While umbrella premiums can be surprisingly affordable, dog bite insurance shoppers should first ask:

  • Are all canine-inflicted injuries covered?
  • What are the umbrella policy's deductibles?

See how much you could save today on your home insurance. Get your free home insurance quotes today!

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