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The $30,000 dog: How a biting pooch costs you

By Chris Kissell Posted : 08/27/2011

Dog home insuranceA dog is man's best friend – loyal, protective and always ready to fetch your ratty slippers. But with a quick snap of his jaws, Fido can quickly become your wallet's worst enemy.

Last year, the average cost of a dog bite claim was $26,166, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III). That could buy a lot of Alpo – around 33,000 cans, in fact.

Insurance claims associated with dog bites actually slipped nearly 5 percent in 2010, according to III. But payouts associated with bites rose last year and have soared 37 percent since 2003.

Many dog lovers are in denial about the risk sleeping peacefully at their feet. Even a well-mannered dog can attack suddenly if it is startled or simply not feeling well. 

In that sense, pit bulls have "gotten a bad rap" compared to other breeds, says State Farm Insurance spokesperson Heather Paul.

"Any dog can bite – small dogs, large dogs," she says.

Should you worry?

How much financial danger does your pooch pose? III says costs associated with dog bites are rising due to growing medical costs and larger settlements, judgments and jury awards.

As Paul says, "You certainly have a lot more attorneys out there that specialize in dog-bite attacks."

Your potential for legal and financial jeopardy also partially depends on where you live.

Under dog-bite statutes, owners are liable for all injuries or property damage the dog causes.  Negligence laws make owners liable when someone is hurt as a result of the owner's carelessness while controlling the dog. 

If you are deemed responsible for your dog's bad behavior, you could end up footing the cost of someone else's:

  • Medical bills
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering
  • Property damage

Some states give you an initial break – a sort of "free chomp" allowance – commonly known as the "one-bite" rule. In these states, an owner cannot be held liable until the animal's "vicious propensity" has been established, typically in the form of a first bite. 

Nearly two dozen states have adopted a form of the one-bite rule, most of them clustered in the western and south-central parts of the country.

Regardless of your local laws, a dog with a checkered history can sabotage your chances of getting home insurance.

In 2010, State Farm –the nation's largest insurer – paid out more than $90 million associated with nearly 3,500 dog bite claims.

The company recently released a list of the top 10 states for State Farm dog-bite claims. States with large populations dominated – California came in first with 369 claims worth $11.3 million in 2010 – but you also want to give a wide berth to mutts in Minnesota (No. 8 with 139 claims and $3.4 million in payouts) and Indiana (No.10 with 114 claims and $1.8 million in payouts).

Paul says State Farm makes judgments about dogs on a case-by-case basis. The insurer may overlook a past isolated incident where a dog jumped up and scratched someone.

But an unprovoked attack is more likely to result in a decision not to insure. In that case, forget about getting a State Farm policy until you "no longer have that dog in your residence," Paul says.

Protecting yourself

If you have a dog with a particularly nasty disposition, there are things you can do to cut your risk of being sued. Paul's tips include:

  • Socialize your dog.
  • If you keep a dog in the backyard or outside, get a fence. "Chains can break very easily," Paul says.
  • Enroll your dog in obedience training.

Remember to exercise extra care any time your dog is near a child. Kids make up half of all Americans who seek medical attention for dog bites, according to the CDC.

The consequences of such attacks can be heartbreaking.

"Children tend to get bitten more in the face because they are lower to the ground and at dog level," Paul says. 

Also, renters with pets should never go without renters insurance, Paul says. Too many renters assume that anything that happens on the property is the landlord's responsibility, she says.

"It's not up to the landlord to handle that claim," she says. "The cost falls on the renter."

While it's important for both homeowners and renters to lower their risk via insurance, using a little common sense is the best way to lower your risk of being the target of a dog-bite claim.

"Your best bet to avoid this issue is to be a responsible pet owner," Paul says.

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2 Responses to "The $30,000 dog: How a biting pooch costs you "
  1. Rudy 03, Sep, 2011

    Pit Bulls are not a breed of dogs. It is a name associated with a variety of breeds: namely Staffys, AMStaffs, and Old English Bulldogs. These breeds of dogs bite less than Poodles (extremely tempermaental and aggressive breed) and Shih Tzus. All in all, there are no bad dogs, just horrible owners. "Pit Bulls" or an Americam Bull Terriers are referred to as "the nanny dog"; I wonder why? Is it because they deface and mame children? No; it is because they are protectors and guardians of children. Also, anyone who knowingly provokes or torments any dog deserves to get bitten and bitten badly! When a dog growls, it is giving you a warning to remove yourself from its presence or telling you to stop doing whatever it is you are doing. If it shows teeth with the growl, that's your final warning. I believe it necessary for individuals to educate themselves about their animals and other pets as well as people who do not own pets so they can understand and realize certain characteristics and body language associated with such animals. Whether or not we go to school, we still know our ABC's, right? Wake up America, do some research and become responsible pet owners.

    1. vince 17, Oct, 2012

      I compleatly agree pitbulls are the most loving and loyal dogs I have ever met !!!!! The owners r the wons that r bad if anything not the dogs u don't get in a dogs face and not expect to get bit just how u don't get in somewons face and not expect to get hit use ur heads people. I could go on all day about pitbulls and not say a single bad thing .

        Reply »  

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