Dog owners love their dogs. Statistics show that there are approximately 89 million dogs in the United States which are kept by 60 million households. However, while our dogs give us great companionship, they can also create a liability concern, costing the owners substantial amounts of money if the dogs cause property damage or personal injuries. The statistics show that there are approximately 4.5 million dog bites per year in the United States and approximately 750,000 dog bite victims who require medical care each year. In 2015, more than 28,000 reconstructive surgery procedures were performed because of dog bites.
Under Wisconsin Statutes, Wis. Stat. § 174.02, an owner of a dog is strictly liable for the full amount of damages caused by property damage or bodily injuries caused by a dog to another person, animal, or property. (The strict liability is subject to the defense of contributory negligence. For example, if someone provoked the dog which resulted in a dog bite, that may reduce the dog owner’s responsibility for damages to that person.)
If the owner of the dog is aware of a previous time when the dog, without provocation, caused serious injury to someone, then the owner of the dog will be liable for twice the full amount of damages caused by the dog biting someone again with sufficient force to break the skin and cause permanent injuries. The amount of damages may include pain and suffering, past and future medical bills, wage loss, and permanent disfigurement. In addition to monetary damages, a court may order that the dog be euthanized under both of the following conditions:
1. The dog caused serious injury to a person or domestic animal on two separate occasions off of the owner’s property, without reasonable cause; and
2. The owner of the dog was notified or knew prior to the second injury that the dog caused the first injury.
The financial impact of dog bites is substantial. Dog attack victims in the United States suffer over $1 billion in losses every year. Dog bites and other dog-related injuries cost homeowners liability insurance companies more than $686 million in 2017.
Given that a dog owner is strictly liable for damages, what can a homeowner do to protect themselves? First of all, using good old common sense may go a long way to preventing these occurrences. Keeping one’s dog on a leash and preventing it from roaming onto other people’s property may help prevent unwanted injuries. Additionally, not allowing strangers or small children to approach one’s dog will also prevent situations where the dog may feel threatened. Also, keeping the dog in the house when mail carriers or delivery people are approaching the home would be a prudent course of action. The statistics show that 5,900 U.S. postal service letter carriers were bitten by dogs in 2012.
No matter what precautions one takes, it cannot always prevent dog bites from occurring. To protect against this personal financial risk that you have for being a dog owner, the first place one should look to is one’s homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy. It would be wise to evaluate your insurance coverage at the present time if you own a dog. Depending on which insurance company you have, there are a wide variety of approaches taken by the insurance companies as to whether they cover dog bites or whether they exclude damages resulting from dog bites. Some companies will cover the damages, provided that you pay the premium for an endorsement providing this type of coverage. Some companies will only pay a small amount for damages and some may pay less depending upon the type of breed of dog that you have. Some companies will exclude coverage completely. Interestingly enough, some companies will provide coverage for the first bite, but then have language in their policy excluding coverage for any subsequent dog bites after the owner has knowledge of a first bite.
Therefore, it is recommended that if you want to be certain as to whether and to what extent you have insurance coverages for damages resulting from a dog bite, that you get in touch with your insurance agent. Another way for one to minimize the financial risk associated with dog bites would be to purchase an umbrella insurance policy which provides additional protection for liability. Our law firm has discussed the importance of an umbrella policy at many of our seminars and in other articles and website videos. An umbrella policy, which is relatively inexpensive, does not simply apply to automobile liability, underinsured motorist coverage, or uninsured motorist coverage. A personal umbrella policy can also provide for additional liability coverage under your homeowner’s policy for occasions such as this if you are found liable for damages resulting from a dog bite. Again, you are encouraged to check with your insurance agent to see what coverages are offered and what limitations or exclusions can be found in your policy relating to dog bites.
It is also important to note that if you do, in fact, have coverage for dog bites under your homeowner’s policy, then the insurance company is obligated to provide a defense to you in the event you are sued in a lawsuit resulting from the dog bite. The insurance company would then have a duty to defend you and pay for attorneys’ fees to defend you. That is a very valuable benefit of having the insurance coverage – not only may it provide coverage so that you do not have to dip into your personal resources to pay for any damages, but the cost of a defense in a lawsuit can be very substantial and it is an excellent benefit to have in the event this unfortunate situation arises. If you have questions about liability for dog bites or are a victim of a dog bite, you should contact an attorney right away. There are time limitations in which you can bring claims for injuries if you do sustain a serious dog bite and, therefore, it is important to preserve evidence and discuss the legal ramifications early in the process.