Nebraska Court: No Insurance Coverage for Woman Bitten by Dog

A woman who had part of her lower lip bitten off by a dog she was watching for friends has no right to seek payment of medical expenses from the owners’ home insurance company, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 19.

Jennifer Van Kleek, of Omaha, cared for her friends’ dog without pay while they were on vacation in July 2011. Several days into her pet-sitting stint, the dog lunged at Van Kleek as she bent over to give him a treat and bit off part of her lip. She underwent reconstructive surgery to repair the damage and filed a claim with Farmers Insurance Exchange, the home insurance provider for the owners.

Farmers denied her claim for medical benefits and liability, claiming that because she was caring for the dog, she was legally responsible for it and therefore “an insured” under the homeowner’s policy. The policy includes a clause that excludes coverage for bodily injury to anyone insured under the policy.

On Dec. 19, the state’s high court upheld a Douglas County District Court’s dismissal of her claim, agreeing with Farmers that she had control over the dog at the time of the attack, making her insured under her friends’ policy.

Van Kleek’s attorney, Richard Rensch of Omaha, said that the high court followed legal precedent that’s been established for decades. But that precedent and a Nebraska law that makes dog owners strictly liable for any injury their dog causes puts pet owners in a tough spot, he said.

Nearly all homeowner’s policies include the “insured” exclusion, Rensch said, so dog owners in Nebraska could find themselves open to liability if their dog hurts anyone considered to be legally responsible for the animal. That could include friends and family who agree to sit a dog or a baby sitter who is hired to watch the homeowners’ children, but takes on “legal responsibility” of the family dog if the baby sitter so much as lets the dog in or out of the house, he said.

“The homeowner’s got to watch out, and so do people who volunteer to help them out,” Rensch said.

An attorney for Farmers, Daniel Chesire of Omaha, declined to comment on the ruling.