This week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week (certainly a noble cause). To celebrate this “occasion,” the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) published the most recently available dog-bite statistics.
According to the study, more than one-third of all homeowners’ insurance liability claims are attributable to dog bites, costing the industry $571.3 million in 2015, up 7.6 percent from 2014, and up 76 percent since 2003 – when dog-bite claims cost the industry $324.2 million.
I.I.I. found the average cost of a dog-bite claim in 2015 was a staggering $37,214, up 16 percent over 2014. Since 2003, the average cost of a dog bite has risen more than 94 percent.
Interestingly, between 2003 and 2015 the number of dog bite claims remained somewhat constant, ranging between 14,531 and 17,359 during this 13-year period. In 2015 there were 15,352 claims arising out of a dog bite.
From an insurance and personal safety perspective, dog ownership seems to be a place where risk management is helpful in reducing the exposure to injury. Avoidance is the most obvious approach. Statistically, 61 percent of dog bites occur at the owner’s home; further, 77 percent of victims are bitten by a dog owned by a family member or family friend.
Is it the Owner or the Breed?
In September 2000, a Vet Med Today Special Report (JAVMA, Vol 217, No. 6, September 15, 2000) listed the dog breeds most responsible for the 282 bite-related fatalities between 1979 and 1998. The top five breeds (themselves responsible for 64.9 percent of all dog-bite fatalities) were:
- Pit bull (26.95 percent of all fatalities);
- Rottweiler (15.6 percent of all fatalities);
- German Shepherd;
- Husky; and
Likewise, DogsBite.org studied 88 dog bite fatalities occurring over the three-year period 2006-2008. This organization’s top five deadly breeds were:
- Pit bulls (59 percent of the fatalities);
- Rottweilers (14 percent of the fatalities);
- American bulldogs;
- Husky; and
- German shepherds.
A longer range study covering the period September 1982 to May 2016 conducted by Animals 24-7 editor, Merritt Clifton, yielded similar data. During this period there were 658 documented cases of dog-attack deaths. The top five fatality-causing breeds were, unsurprisingly:
- Pit bull / pit bull mix (53.5 percent of the fatalities);
- Rottweiler / Rottweiler mix (14 percent of the fatalities);
- Husky / husky mix;
- German shepherd / German shepherd mix; and
- Bull mastiff / bull mastiff mix.
Notice that pit bulls and Rottweilers are one and two, respectively, on all three lists; with a wide margin between the top two and the next three.
Many people love and want dogs; further, studies suggest that pet ownership is healthy – especially for the elderly. Dogs also provide security for persons and property. Those who own a dog must apply some risk management practices to make dog ownership safe as well as enjoyable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta suggest that:
- Dog owners should carefully choose a pet dog by evaluating the environment and lifestyle. Potential owners should speak with a professional to determine the appropriate type of pet.
- Dogs should be neutered to reduce aggressive tendencies.
- Never leave infants or young children alone with a dog. Be sensitive to cues that a child is fearful or apprehensive about a dog.
- Children be taught basic safety around dogs (and reviewed regularly).
- Dogs with histories of aggression are inappropriate for families with children.
- Owners should not play aggressive games with their dog (i.e. wrestling).
- If bitten, the bite should be reported immediately.
Dog Owner Liability
States differ on how they legally view dog bites. There are three kinds of law that govern the liability or responsibility imposed on dog owners:
- Strict Liability (Dog Bite Statutes): The dog owner is strictly liable for any injury or property damage caused by the dog, even if done without provocation (a trespasser or someone committing a crime may be exceptions). Nearly every state that has promulgated a “Dog Bite Statute” (which is a majority of states) holds the dog’s owner strictly liable for most bites – with some exceptions, such as if the victim is harassing or teasing the dog.
Strict liability states appear to be: AL, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, FL, IL, IN, IA, KY, LA, ME, MA, MI, MN, MO, MT, NE, NH, NJ, NC (if dog is dangerous), OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, UT, WA, WV, and WI.
- “One-bite” rule: States that do not have specific statutes addressing dog bites depend on court precedence. Generally, these states apply the “one-bite” rule. Sixteen states do not have dog-bite statutes” and do not hold the owner liable for the dog’s first bite. Once an animal has demonstrated vicious behavior, such as biting or otherwise displayed a “vicious propensity,” the owner can be held liable. Some states have moved away from the absolute application of the one-bite rule and hold owners responsible for any injury, regardless of whether the animal has previously bitten someone if they are of a known dangerous breed. These are known as “mixed dog bite statute states” as they apply a mixture of the “one-bite” rule and the strict liability of the previously discussed dog-bite statute.
“One-bite” states appear to be: AK, AR, ID, KA, MD, MS, NV, NM, NY, NC (if dog not dangerous), ND, OR, SD, TX, VT, VA, and WY.
- Negligence laws: Most “one-bite” states also apply the concept of negligence in determining the liability of the owner. When negligence is applied, the dog owner is liable if the injury occurred because the dog owner was unreasonably careless (negligent) in controlling the dog. The injured person must show: 1) the dog’s owner had a duty to use reasonable care in handling or controlling the dog; 2) the duty was breached; 3) an injury was inflicted; and 4) the injury was a direct result of the breach of duty.
Three states apply negligence laws within their dog-bite statutes. Even though these states have statutes addressing dog bites, they do not apply strict liability. In general, these statutes mandate that the owner has a duty to keep the dog under control and failure to do so could result in civil liability. These states are:
- Georgia: if the dog is “vicious or dangerous;”
- Hawaii (applies a mixture of strict liability and negligence): Strictly liable if dog known to be dangerous; but can be found negligent regardless of the “propensity” of the dog to violent behavior; and
- Tennessee: regardless of the propensity of the dog to violence.
In most states, dog owners are not liable to trespassers injured by a dog. If a dog owner is statutorily held or judged to be legally responsible for an injury to a person or property, he may be responsible for paying the injured person’s: 1) medical bills; 2) lost wages; 3) pain and suffering; and 4) property damage (if any).
Claims frequency has remained somewhat constant, but the costs associated with dog bites have escalated greatly. Homeowners’ insurers, who are usually responsible for these costs, take this issue very seriously. Both Insurance Services Office (ISO) and American Association of Insurance Services (AAIS) promulgated dog-bite liability exclusions. And some carriers have developed proprietary dog-bite exclusions (or limitations).
In some states the Homeowners’ program has no provisions for excluding the legal responsibility for dog bites and no provisions for charging additional premiums for the increased exposure. Consequently, insurers must underwrite around the exposure. This means not accepting risks where there is a known increase in exposure, and deciding not to renew risks when the underwriter becomes aware of an exposure after initial acceptance.
Additionally, the law or concept applicable in the state plays a part in the underwriting decision. Carriers with insureds in “strict liability” states are “on the hook” for any and all dog bites; while insureds in “one bite” or “negligence law” states may allow the underwriter a bit of “wiggle room” (if the dog bites, the underwriter has a chance to “get off the risk” before another incident).
Regardless of the state and the availability of exclusionary endorsements or the ability to charge a higher premium, insurers are attempting to underwrite the dog exposure by identifying the breed of the dog in question and assessing the extent to which the exposure is increased by that breed. From an underwriting perspective, statistics are more powerful evidence than how gentle and loving the owner claims his pit bull or Rottweiler is.
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