Dog Bite Liability
Dog Bite Liability
In 2006 dog bites cost insurers $351.4 million, up 10.8 percent from the
previous year. While the number of claims paid by insurers fell from
approximately 20,800 in 2002 to 15,000 in 2005 -- a decrease of 28 percent
-- the cost of the average dog bite claim rose sharply, from roughly $16,600
in 2002 to $21,200 in 2005. Liability claims account for approximately 4
percent of homeowner’s claims. Dog bite claims in 2005 accounted for
about 15 percent of liability claims dollars paid under homeowner’s
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than
4.7 million people are bitten by dogs annually, resulting in an estimated
800,000 injuries that require medical attention. With over 50 percent of the
bites occurring on the dog owner’s property, the issue is a major source of
concern for insurers.
Over the years, many states have passed laws with stiff penalties for
owners of dogs that cause serious injuries or deaths. In about one-third of
states, owners are "strictly liable" for their dogs' behavior, while in the rest
of the country they are liable only if they knew or should have known their
dogs had a propensity to bite (known as the "one free bite" principle).
State Legislation and Court Decisions: Dog owners in 33 states
and the District of Columbia are currently legally liable for deaths or
injuries caused by their dogs. Two states, Pennsylvania and
Michigan, have laws that prohibit insurers from canceling or denying
coverage to the owners of particular dog breeds. According to the
American Kennel Club, several states—including Illinois, New Jersey,
New York, South Carolina, Vermont and Washington—have similar
bills pending. The American Kennel Club also reports that over the
last two years nearly 100 municipalities have enacted bans on
specific breeds. Several states, however,—including California,
Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York,
Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia—have
laws barring municipalities and counties from targeting individual
Insurers generally oppose legislation that would require changes to
their dog breed practices. They contend that government public
health studies and the industry’s claims histories show that some
breeds are more dangerous than others and are higher loss risks.
Landmark Case: On January 26, 2001, two Presa Canario dogs attacked
and killed Diane Whipple in the doorway of her San Francisco, California,
apartment. The owner of the dogs, Marjorie Knoller, a San Francisco
lawyer, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and keeping a
mischievous dog that killed a person — she was sentenced to four years in
prison for involuntary manslaughter and was ordered to pay $6,800 in
restitution. Her husband, Robert Noel, was convicted of two lesser charges
but also received a four year prison sentence. Knoller became the first
Californian convicted of murder for a dog’s actions. This was only the third
time such charges have been upheld in the United States, the first coming
in Kansas in 1997.
Insurers are Limiting their Exposure: Homeowners and renters
insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability. Most policies provide
$100,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage. If the claim exceeds the limit,
the dog owner is responsible for all damages above that amount, including
legal expenses. Most insurance companies insure homeowners with dogs.
However, once a dog has bitten someone, it poses an increased risk. In
that instance, the insurance company may suggest that the homeowner
find the dog a new home, or may charge a higher premium, nonrenew the
homeowner’s insurance policy, or exclude the dog from coverage.
Many insurers are taking steps to limit their exposure to such losses. Some
companies require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites, while
others charge more for owners of biting breeds such as pit bulls and
Rottweilers and others are not offering insurance to dog owners at all.
Some will cover a pet if the owner takes the dog to classes aimed at
modifying its behavior or if the dog is restrained with a muzzle, chain or
cage. It is unlikely that insurers will begin offering specialty insurance
policies just for dog bites since the cost of such policies would be
Dog Owners’ Liability: Dog owners are liable for injuries their pets cause
if the owner knew the dog had a tendency to cause that kind of injury; if a
state statute makes the owner liable, whether or not the owner knew the
dog had a tendency to cause that kind of injury; or if the injury was caused
by unreasonably carelessness on the part of the owner.
There are three kinds of law that impose liability on owners:
A dog-bite statute: where the dog owner is automatically liable for any
injury or property damage the dog causes without provocation.
The one-bite rule: where the dog owner is responsible for an injury
caused by a dog if the owner knew the dog was likely to cause that
type of injury – in this case, the victim must prove the owner knew the
dog was dangerous.
Negligence laws: where the dog owner is liable if the injury occurred
because the dog owner was unreasonably careless (negligent) in
controlling the dog.
In most states, dog owners aren't liable to trespassers who are injured by a
dog. A dog owner who is legally responsible for an injury to a person or
property may be responsible for reimbursing the injured person for medical
bills, time off work, pain and suffering and property damage.
For the Home Owner:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are
approximately 4.7 million dog bites per year. These bites cost the property/
casualty insurance industry roughly $317.2 million in 2005.
Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability.
The following tips can help reduce the chances of your dog biting someone:
1. Have your dog spayed or neutered. These procedures will greatly
reduce the likelihood that the dog will bite.
2. Socialize your dog so that it knows how to act with other people and
3. Play non-aggressive games with your dog such as "go fetch." Playing
aggressive games like "tug-of-war" can encourage inappropriate
4. Avoid exposing your dog to situations in which you are unsure what
the dog’s response will be.
Insurers may charge more for certain breeds of dogs. The following breeds
or types of dog were responsible for the greatest number of dog bite-
related fatalities over the 20-year period from 1979 to 1998, according to
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (http://www.cdc.gov ). The
breeds are listed in declining order of fatalities:
German Shepherd Dog
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