Does Your Dog Bite?
By Ric Edelman
The person bitten might bite back.
That loyal, lovable ball of fur who protects you, fetches (or eats) your slippers and enjoys family-member (or ruling) status can — with little warning and a quick snap of its jaws — hurt you in the pocketbook. Badly.
Last year, the average cost of a dogbite claim in the United States was $26,166, says the Insurance Information Institute. That’s a lot of dog biscuits and chew toys.
Although insurance claims for dog bites dropped 5% in 2010 (the latest statistics available), court settlements and other payouts increased. They’ve risen 37% since 2003, mostly because of higher medical costs and larger court judgments and jury awards. The fact that there are more attorneys specializing in dog-bite attacks may also play a role. (Ya think?)
Media accounts make it seem that pit bulls are the most frequent biters, but dog-bite claims are actually spread fairly proportionately across all breeds. Size doesn’t matter, either. Any dog, large or small, can attack suddenly if it is startled — or just not feeling well.
How much legal and financial trouble you could face if your dog bites someone depends partly on where you live. Dog-bite statutes generally make owners liable for all injuries and property damage that their dogs cause, but there are negligence laws as well that can make you liable when it’s proven that someone’s injuries stemmed from your failure to control your dog with fencing, a leash or other means.
Thus, if you’re deemed at fault for your dog’s behavior, you could be on the hook for someone else’s medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and property damage.
About 25 states, mostly in the West and south-central region, have a “one bite” rule that gives you one pass;\ you’re not liable until your dog’s “vicious propensity” is established by the first bite. The hammer falls the next time.
A side problem is that, regardless of local laws, a dog with a checkered past can prevent you from getting homeowner’s insurance. Most insurers decide this on a case-by-case basis; some carriers might overlook a minor incident in which a dog jumped upon and scratched someone, but a serious attack often will trigger a decision not to insure you.
In 2010, the nation’s largest insurer, State Farm, paid more than $90 million in connection with 3,500 dogbite claims. California had the most — 369 claims totaling $11.3 million, followed by Illinois with 317 claims totaling $9.7 million.