Ouch! Insurance Payout for a Dog Bite Claim Averages $32K

By Brian O'Connell

If you don't think bites can eat into a homeowner's insurance policy, think again.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, “dog bites (and other dog-related injuries) accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claim dollars paid out in 2014, costing in excess of $530 million.”

On an individual, household basis, one unfortunate chomp by Fido lead directly to, on average, a $32,000 insurance claim in 2014. That’s up from $27,862 in 2013, the institute reports.

RELATED: Does Your Auto Insurance Cover Your Pet

“The average cost per claim nationally has risen more than 67 percent from 2003 to 2014, due to increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards given to plaintiffs, which are still on the upswing,” says Loretta Worters, vice president with the New York City-based insurance group.

Claim rates do differ depending on which state a pet owner lives. For example, even though New York ranked third among pet bite-related claims in 2014 (at 965, versus California’s 1,867), it had the highest average claim figure, at $56,628.

Additionally, it’s not all about dog bites either. According to the III, “the trend in higher costs per claim is attributable not simply to dog bites but also to dogs knocking down children, cyclists, the elderly, etc., all of which can result in fractures and other blunt force trauma injuries that impact the potential severity of the losses.”

So what’s the best way for pet owners to reduce the odds of a major homeowners policy claim after a bite or other harmful incident?

You can't predict who your dog will bite

NetQuote.com reached out to several insurance industry and legal experts for help. The consensus seems to be that any pet owner should have bite or harmful pet incidents covered under their homeowners insurance policy.

“Dog bite claims are extremely expensive and unfortunately there is no way to predict whether or not your dog will bite someone,” says Nick Braun, founder of PetInsurance.com, in Columbus, Ohio. “In some cases, dogs with no prior history will bite someone out of the blue.”

As a licensed insurance agent , Braun says he’s “shocked” by how unaware both dog owners and agents are about pet liability insurance.

“If you're a dog owner it's vitally important to make sure you're covered under your homeowners policy and if not, add a rider or purchase a supplemental policy,” he advises. “Also, keep in mind that many homeowner policies exclude certain high-risk breeds, including rottweilers, pit bulls and boxers.

“The bottom line, if you own a dog, especially a big or high-risk breed, consult with your insurance agent or company to make sure you're covered under your homeowners or renters insurance policy,” he adds.

Thomas Simeone, a personal injury attorney with Simeone & Miller, LLP, in Washington, D.C., says he has handled “several” dog bite/attack cases.

“First of all, homeowners insurance will provide coverage for dogs residing at a home,” he says. “The attack does not need to take place at the home, as most people do not realize this, but homeowner's insurance covers claims outside the residence. So, the first step is that if someone has a homeowner's policy, they should ensure that it covers their pet. If so, they really need additional coverage.”

Apparently, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and pet owners need to account for their pet’s mauling or biting other pets, in addition to human attacks. 

“You can be liable for your dog's actions if it attacks another dog, and also if it does not actually bite anyone (or anything), but causes injury in another way,” Simeone says.

For example, Simeone says his firm won damages on a case where a man was injured climbing a fence to escape from an aggressive dog. In another case, a client was injured when a dog at a dog park ran into her -- the owner actually commented beforehand that her dog had a tendency to do that, but failed to put him on a leash. (The client required a surgery to her leg as a result of the dog's actions.) 

RELATED: Pet Groomer Insurance 101

“Therefore, as an owner, you are responsible for what your dog does and have a duty to take reasonable actions to prevent injury, not just bites,” he adds.

The best way to avoid incurring any pet-related insurance claim damages is to keep your dog tied up or otherwise secure, follow laws regarding leashes, and generally do not allow your dog contact with strangers, small children or other dogs, if you believe there is a risk that your dog will act aggressively. 

“Many people believe they get one free bite before they are liable,” Simeone says. “That is not true. Instead, if your dog has previously shown aggressive tendencies -- even less than a bite -- you are on notice that it may attack someone.”

Simeone also advises not using social media to discuss a pet bite or attack. 

“Don’t do that,” he says. “We settled one case partly because the owner went on to a dog owner's blog and discussed the attack -- and, in doing so, admitted that prior to the bite she knew the dog was acting aggressively.”

Check your state’s pet liability laws

Paul Cannon, a Houston personal injury attorney with Simmons & Fletcher, advises pet owners to look up individual state statutes on pet bites and attack laws.

“Those laws vary from state to state with respect to dog attacks,” he says. “Most, however, have both strict liability and negligence causes of action that can be brought against dog owners for the aggressive actions of their dogs. If the dog has bitten before or shown aggressive tendencies toward a human and the owner has knowledge of the incident, the owner is generally held strictly liable for the dogs subsequent actions.”

Another tip -- if you rent a home, and own a dog, know that the landlord’s homeowners insurance likely won’t cover any bite or attack claims. 

“Renter’s need to obtain their own renter’s liability insurance if they wish to be protected,” Cannon says. “That insurance also may or may not exclude liability for the actions of animals and should be checked in the same way as homeowners insurance.”

If you don’t have coverage under your homeowners policy, purchase canine liability insurance -- a policy that is designed to specifically cover you in the event you are sued due to your dog’s conduct, Cannon advises.

The moral of the story? If your greyhound is sharpening his teeth on the ankles of a friend or neighbor, you’re liable for any financial damages, as a result. So take direct action to keep Fido in line, and your homeowner’s insurance up to date against pet bite and attack claims.