Puppy Love & Homeowner Liability – A Cautionary Tail

I adopted a rescue bull terrier. I love him but he has “issues.” Like many terriers, he’s a nipper and when he nipped my boss’s wife during a dinner party at my home, my life (and career) flashed briefly before my eyes. For good reason.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, the average dog bite insurance claim in 2008 was $24,511 – up 11.5 percent from the previous year. That’s a big ouch if you don’t have adequate homeowner insurance to cover dog bite liability.

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and your canine buddy. Most homeowner and renter insurance policies provide between $100,000 and $300,000 in dog bite liability coverage. Any damages above that, and you’re going to have to cough up the difference. Generally (and it varies by state and even municipality, so check your local laws to be sure), you are liable for injuries under three broad areas:

  • You knew that Fido has a bad track record bite-wise;
  • Your state holds you liable whether or not you knew about Fido’s anti-social tendencies;
  • Your unreasonable negligence led to Fido causing injury. Whoa! There are enough weasel words in those three bullet points for the rankest plaintiff’s attorney to slip around and sock it to you. Why take chances?

In today’s litigious society, the more you’re worth, the more homeowner liability insurance you need. Unless you want to risk the farm (and maybe Fido) you may want to purchase a personal excess liability policy, also known as umbrella liability coverage. Coverage can range from $1 million to $10 million and protect your assets against personal liabilities like a dog bite. Be aware that this supplements rather replaces the minimum homeowners insurance policy you have to carry. At about $150 to $300 annually for the first million, umbrella liability is a relative bargain, particularly if you own one of the breeds that are considered high-risk like Rottweilers and bull breeds. And cat owners, you don’t skate on this one.

A couple years ago, a jury in Flint, Michigan awarded $122,400 to a man for injuries resulting from bites inflicted by his sister’s Siamese. He made a claim against her homeowner’s insurance policy and when the insurance company ignored it, he took it to court. Now go call your agent and see if you need additional personal liability insurance.


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