Your dog could bankrupt you: A guide to dog bite liability
Nationally, dog bites cost more than $1 billion each year, with more than $300 million paid out by home insurance, according to DogBiteLaw.com. The Insurance Information Institute claims home insurance costs actually exceed $400 million annually and account for more than one-third of all home insurance liability claims.
This leaves about $700 million in costs that are absorbed by dog owners. In the worst cases, dog bites can cause disfigurement and extensive medical treatments, leaving the pet owner's financial assets vulnerable.
A big bite
Many dog bites are not simply surface wounds that require basic first aid. In fact, the face is the most common target for dogs, representing 77 percent of all dog bite injuries, according to DogBiteLaw.com. Children are the most common victims.
Dog bites also can take a big bite out of your wallet or that of your insurer. The average dog bite claim cost $26,166 in 2010, according to the Insurance Information Institute, and the size of settlements and jury awards for dog bite victims have outstripped inflation.
The liability coverage under your home or renter's insurance typically covers dog bite claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute, and basic policies usually provide between $100,000 and $300,000 in coverage. However, a lawsuit can easily cost that much. Moreover, some insurers may refuse to provide coverage for owners of certain blacklisted breeds, may exclude a dog from a policy, may require the owner to sign the pet up for behavior classes or might drop your coverage or charge you a higher premium) after your dog bites someone.
State-related dog bite information
Whether you're liable for your dog's misbehavior can depend on the laws where you live. States usually fall into three categories, according to the Insurance Information Institute:
- Dog owners are always liable for all injuries their dogs cause, even if the dog was provoked.
- The owner is not held liable for the dog's first offense. But once the dog has behaved viciously toward someone, the owner will be held liable for all future offenses. This is commonly known as the "one bite rule."
- Owners are held liable only if they were negligent in controlling the dog.
According to DogBiteLaw.com, the one bite rule is becoming increasingly rare. Texas still has it, meaning that in order to be considered liable, dog owners there have to know that their dogs have exhibited dangerous behavior in the past. DogBiteLaw.com calls Texas' system "ancient and outdated" and criticizes it for allowing dangerous dogs to get at least two bites in before their owners are punished.
Because insurers take where you live into account when setting your premium, you may want to know if you live in an "expensive" state for dog bite claims. According to State Farm, California dog owners ran up more than $11 million in dog bite claims in 2010. Illinois, Ohio, Texas and Michigan rounded out the top five.
Dog bite prevention
In addition to making sure you have the right home insurance coverage, the best way to guard against catastrophic dog bite costs is to prevent dog bites from happening in the first place. State Farm recommends taking the following actions to reduce the chance of dog bites:
- Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.
- If you feel unsafe around a dog, trust your instinct and leave.
- Start teaching young children to be careful around pets and to not approach strange dogs.
- Ask permission from the owner before petting any dog.
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