Liability for Dangerous Dog Breeds and Compensation for Injuries

According to the Insurance Information Institute, each year in the United States insurance companies pay out almost $500 million to victims of dog attacks. The majority of these personal injury claims are the result of attacks by what some laws are increasingly classifying as dangerous breeds.

The most common dangerous dog breeds are:

  • Akita
  • Alaskan Malamute
  • Pit bull
  • Rottweiler
  • German Shepherd
  • Siberian Husky and Husky mixes
  • Doberman Pinscher
  • Chow Chow
  • Presa Canario
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  • Wolf mixes
  • Great Danes
  • St. Bernards

Insurance Coverage for Dangerous Breeds

To stem the hemorrhaging of insurance settlements and court verdicts, many homeowners insurance policies exclude dangerous dog breeds. Others restrict coverage not based on breed, but instead on the dog's history of attacks on others. Some insurance companies completely refuse to provide coverage unless the insured homeowner puts in place stringent safety measures to protect third parties from harm.

For example, Allstate home insurance policies exclude coverage for injuries their insured's pit bulls, Doberman Pinschers and Rottweilers cause. Farmers Insurance covers all dog breeds but retains the right to refuse coverage for specific dogs that are prone to "hostile outbursts." Liberty Mutual takes a hybrid approach, providing coverage for some dangerous breeds but retaining the option to deny coverage based on severity of injury to a third party or repeated bad behavior.

Other insurance companies will normally accept the first claim for a dog bite but deny any future claims if the dog inflicts any more injuries. Still others will only agree to provide coverage for dog-inflicted injuries based on an entirely separate policy, referred to as an endorsement.

As part of their underwriting practice, many insurance companies analyze risk factors for individual dog breeds they consider potentially dangerous. The underwriters focus on the following behavior:

  • A dog that has inflicted severe injury on a human being without provocation
  • A dog that killed or inflicted severe injury on another domestic animal
  • A dog that without provocation attacked a child
  • A dog that someone used in the commission of a crime

When insurance companies decide to provide coverage, they do it under the personal liability section of the homeowners policy. Depending on the policy and the premium the insured pays, the coverage limit will normally be anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000. All homeowners policies exclude coverage for injuries to the insured's household and family members.

Dangerous Dog Laws

In the face of mounting dog-inflicted injuries, 31 states and the District of Columbia have statewide laws identifying "vicious" or "dangerous" dogs. These state dangerous dog laws are to protect the public's safety and wellbeing. In addition to state laws, many municipalities, townships, and villages have their own dog laws.

States with dangerous dog laws include:

District of Columbia
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Most of the state laws are to prevent dangerous situations. Their intention is to give fair warning to dangerous dog owners to monitor, leash, fence, and otherwise take all reasonable measures, such as training, to keep their dogs from harming others. Yet, the laws go one step further. They forewarn owners of dangerous dogs their failure to abide by the laws subjects them to fines, and in some cases, incarceration.

Negligence and Liability Under Homeowners Insurance Policies

Most dog-attack personal injury claims are under homeowners insurance policies. To succeed in a personal injury claim, the dog-attack victim must prove the dog owner was negligent. Two forms of negligence apply to dangerous dog owners, basic negligence and negligence per se (by itself).

With basic negligence, the victim has to identify the underlying circumstances that led to her injury and then convince the insurance company (or the court) those circumstances were the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of her injuries. Only then can she establish the dog owner's liability.

With negligence per se, the victim doesn't have to go through the process of identifying and linking the underlying circumstances of her injury. In negligence per se, all the victim has to show is the dog owner violated state or local law. That's it. That means the dog owner broke the law, and the victim becomes entitled to compensation for her damages.

When a victim establishes either form of negligence, the dog owner becomes responsible, or liable, for the victim's damages. In civil personal injury claims, damages often include doctors' bills, out-of-pocket expenses for medications, crutches, parking fees at medical buildings, etc., lost wages, and an amount for pain and suffering (emotional distress).

Applying basic negligence...

Adrian resided in Arizona, which does not have a dangerous dog law. One morning while Adrian was out jogging, a loose Rottweiler chased him and bit him several times in the leg. He required 15 stitches.

Adrian filed a personal injury claim under the liability section of the dog owner's homeowners insurance policy. This homeowners policy did not have a dangerous dog exclusion. The insurance company would have to pay Adrian's injury claim, but only if he could prove their insured was negligent.

To prove negligence, Adrian claimed the dog owner failed to keep her dog fenced in, which was compounded by the fact the dog was a dangerous breed. The dog owner should have taken extraordinary precautions to ensure her Rottweiler couldn't break loose. In her defense, the Rottweiler's owner said her dog was fenced in, but on the morning of the attack, the dog broke through a hole it made in the fence.

In the absence of an applicable state dangerous dog statute classifying Rottweilers as dangerous dogs, the insurance company denied Adrian's injury claim, saying Adrian couldn't prove their insured was negligent. Their insured, the insurance company said, did everything reasonably possible to contain her Rottweiler.

Applying negligence per se...

Susan resided in California, which does have a vicious and dangerous dog law. Under section 597.5 of the California State Penal Code:

...a dog owner is in violation of the statute when (his or her) dog, when unprovoked, in an aggressive manner inflicts severe injury on or kills a human being."

Under subsection 62 of the same law:

...a violation of this section of the law involving a vicious dog shall be punished by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000.00)."

Susan had just arrived home from grocery shopping. As she carried her groceries from her car to the front door, her neighbor passed by while walking her Doberman Pinscher. Although the dog was on a leash, it broke away and charged at Susan. The Doberman Pinscher then jumped on her, knocking her to the ground and repeatedly biting her on the head and face.

Susan filed a claim under her neighbor's home insurance policy. Because under California's State Penal Code Section 31603 (b), a Doberman Pinscher is classified as a dangerous or vicious dog, it wasn't necessary for Susan to prove her neighbor was negligent. The mere violation of the statute was in and of itself proof of negligence.

Unfortunately, Susan quickly learned that Allstate issued her neighbor's homeowners policy. Allstate specifically excludes coverage to their insured for injuries Doberman Pinschers and several other aggressive dog breeds cause.

Susan then retained an attorney and sued her neighbor personally for the injuries and related damages she suffered. Her neighbor defended herself saying the leash unexpectedly broke. She said she did everything reasonably possible to keep her dog leashed so as not to inflict harm upon anyone, so she wasn't negligent.

The court disagreed, stating under Section 31603 (b), her Doberman Pinscher acted as a dangerous and vicious dog. That in and of itself was a violation of state law, making her negligent per se. Her defense of doing everything reasonably possible, the court stated, was irrelevant. The court ruled in Susan's favor.

Continuing debate

Today more than ever, the subject of dangerous dog breeds is under constant debate by state and local authorities. Compounding the controversy are dog owner lobbyists, insurance companies and trial attorneys, each having its own, excuse the pun, "dog in the race."

If you're hurt in a dog attack and are considering filing a personal injury claim, first check to see whether your state, city, or municipality has statutes related to dangerous dog breeds. If so, you may have a relatively easy time settling your claim with the homeowner's insurance company. If the dog was a guard dog used in a local business, your claim is just as strong.

If your state or local governing authority doesn't have dangerous or vicious dog statutes, you need to accumulate evidence supporting your claim of owner negligence. You can do this by using photographs and video, witness statements, and doctors' reports.

Dealing With the Insurance Company

Whether your injury was the result of negligence or negligence per se, you likely have to deal with the dog owner's insurance company. Be prepared to turn over to the company's claims adjuster evidence of your state or local municipality's dangerous dog law statutes. The adjuster isn't going to do it for you. Even if the adjuster knows the dog is defined as a dangerous breed, she's not going to build your claim for you.

Give the adjuster copies of your medical bills, doctors' notes, photographs of your injuries, witness statements, and any other evidence that helps prove your claim. Don't agree to settle until you've finished treatment, or until you verify all your medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages.

The Role of Attorneys

If you have soft tissue injuries, you can probably handle your own claim. Soft tissue injuries include scratches and bruises, muscle sprains and tears, and the like. However, if your injuries are the more serious hard injuries, you need the advice and counsel of an experienced personal injury attorney. Hard injuries include broken bones, deep gashes requiring stitches, scarring, head and face trauma, and other similar injuries.

There's just too much at stake in serious injury claims to "go it alone." Your attorney can take depositions (recorded, sworn statements), subpoena records, and when necessary, file a lawsuit. You can feel confident, especially if your injury occurred in a state with a dangerous dog law, your attorney will have great leverage in settling your claim - and for an amount you truly deserve.

Case Studies:

Boy Attacked by Neighbor's Rottweiler
In this dog bite injury claim the plaintiff, a young boy, and his parents are seeking damages for injuries sustained after the boy was attacked by a neighbor's Rottweiler.

Employer's Guard Dog Attacks Worker
In this court case the plaintiff and her lawyer are seeking damages for serious bodily injury after she was attacked by her employer's guard dog.

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