Dog bites, trampolines and other costly hazards for your home insurance

Nick DiUlio

Looks like homeowner liability claims are going to the dogs.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number of dog bites in America now tops 4.5 million a year. The effect this is having on homeowner's liability claims is staggering.

The nonprofit Insurance Information Institute says the cost of dog-bite claims rose 53 percent from 2003 to 2011. Dog-bite claims now account for more than one-third of all homeowner's insurance liability claims - equaling about $1 billion in damages every year.

"Rising medical expenses as well as the growing size of legal settlements are some of the factors driving up the significant increase in the cost of dog bite) claims," says Frank Darras, a consumer attorney who specializes in insurance. "With this increase, it's more important than ever for homeowners to take the necessary steps to limit their financial exposure."

Darras says dog owners may want to consider obtaining umbrella insurance coverage. Umbrella insurance is designed to give homeowners added liability protection above and beyond the limits on a typical homeowner's policy. Depending on the insurance company, Darras says, homeowners can add up to $5 million in liability protection under some umbrella policies; coverage kicks in when the liability on your other policies has been exhausted.

Not only do umbrella policies provide an extra level of liability protection, they're also relatively affordable. Amy Lynn Banek, spokeswoman for insurance company The Hanover, says increasing coverage by adding a $1 million-dollar personal umbrella policy can cost just $100 to $300 a year.

Liability risk isn't limited to dog bites, though. Here, in no particular order, are some other common causes of homeowner's liability claims.


Janet Scott-Buckley, manager of Harrington Insurance Agency's office in Massachusetts, says backyard fun and games are one of the most common causes of liability claims, and trampolines have jumped to the top of the list.

"Many insurers won't even insure a home with a trampoline in the yard," Scott-Buckley says.

In addition to trampolines, Scott-Buckley says, liability claims often stem from injuries in and around pools - especially those with slides or diving boards - as well as in tree houses and on skateboard ramps.

Slips, trips and falls

Oscar Michelen has been practicing law in New York for more than 25 years and has handled countless claims for and against homeowners. Besides dog bites, Michelen says, the most common type of claim involves slips, trips and falls.

"People tripping and falling on steps, in the yard, out on the sidewalk — you name it. It's much more common than dog-bite cases," Michelen says.

Shari-Lynn Cuomo Shore, a personal injury attorney, says it's important for homeowners to make sure their property is well-maintained, which can help reduce these types of claims.

"Property maintenance is always a concern, such as someone slipping and falling on ice, tripping over something, or possibly even falling off of a rotting deck or porch," Shore says. "Keep your property as accident-free as possible."

Homeowners also should be aware of any hazards at home.

"Whether it's a sharp, pointy table, a staircase that's not up to building code, or some other dangerous condition on the premises, these kinds of injuries frequently result in claims against homeowners," criminal defense attorney Shane Fischer says.

Injured workers

Some homeowners have people working on their properties frequently, including landscapers, contractors to nannies. The possible liability claims are numerous.

Michelen says you should never let construction workers and handymen your ladder or other equipment, and you should always make sure they carry their own insurance.

Personal injury attorney Kevin Danesh says homeowners who employ live-in workers, such as nannies, should make sure they add worker's compensation coverage to their existing insurance.

"This is a relatively cheap add-on and will cover the homeowner for worker's compensation-related injuries while working at the premises," Danesh says. "A failure to purchase this coverage will result in a lawsuit if one of the workers is injured and there are no defenses to these injury claims."

Typically, he says, the homeowner is responsible regardless of the cause of injury.

Unlicensed contractors

In many states, Danesh says, homeowners are held liable for injuries to unlicensed contractors or laborers hired to perform work on your property.

For example, if a homeowner hires a day laborer to perform light construction or repairs, the day laborer may not be licensed to perform that type of work. During the process, the laborer might get injured and the homeowner would responsible for the injuries - even if the accident was caused by the worker's negligence.

"This applies even if you hire a business that is licensed and one of their employees is injured at your home," Danesh says. "You need to find out how liable you are in your home state."

Underage drinking and driving

In Connecticut, a "social host" law went into effect in October 2012, making adult homeowners responsible for anyone under age 21 who possesses alcohol on a homeowner's property. Adults also are liable if they serve alcohol to an underage youth at their homes or if they allow underage drinking to occur with their knowledge - even if they did not provide the alcohol.

It gets worse: Homeowners still are held accountable for underage drinking on their property, even if they aren't at home and had nothing to do with serving the booze. Similarly laws are on the books in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Florida, Alabama, Michigan and New Hampshire.

"Previously, it was illegal for an underage person to possess alcohol in public, or drive after consumption," Shore says. "Now, the homeowners are on the hook. This will be a growing cause of liability claims moving forward."

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