A little more than a year ago I was faced with the choice of getting rid of my beloved dog Caesar or losing the insurance on my house. A utility man had come on my property without permission when I wasn’t home and claimed Caesar bit him. His lawyer filed notice with my insurer a few days later, my insurer immediately told me it wouldn’t renew, and after that no one would touch me — or my dog — with that claim outstanding.
Lloyds of London came through at the last minute, with a homeowner’s policy stripped of canine coverage and costing significantly more. Gone was my umbrella policy covering catastrophic liability and – as long as Caesar is alive – any chance of shopping for insurance in the regular market.
Conventional wisdom says dogs get one free bite, but that’s not true. Just the unproven allegation of a bite is enough to lead home insurers to drop coverage, setting off a scramble to find insurance at any cost to cover what is most people’s most valuable asset. Some agents sell specialized canine policies, but they are expensive and can include onerous restrictions including installing high fences or keeping the dog muzzled or off public thoroughfares.
Why is a dog such a liability bomb? Blame lawyer-friendly state laws that make it almost impossible to contest a dog-bite claim, especially when there are only two witnesses to the incident and one of them isn’t talking. Dog bite claims now account for a third of homeowners’ insurance liability payouts, according to the Insurance Information Institute, at more than $530 million a year, up more than 75% since 2003. Some of the most devastating claims don’t even involve bites: A $100,000 “dog bite” claim might stem from someone running from the dog and tripping in your driveway. Dog-human contact is not required.
I learned the risks of dog ownership the hard way on October 24, 2014 when the lineman with my local utility, Eversource, came on my property to check my voltage after an outage. I got a call from him as he was being treated at the local clinic. He said my dog, a 30-pound Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, had bit him and he was worried about rabies. I apologized profusely, told him the dog’s vaccinations were up-to-date and offered to cover any of his costs. He didn’t say anything in response. When I called to check in the following Monday he was curt and answered in monosyllables, a tipoff he’d already spoken to a lawyer.
Sure enough a letter arrived five days later from a local law firm, notifying me they represented the lineman. Soon after that my insurance company, QBE, told me it wouldn’t renew in March. I called my insurance agent and he assured me it was no big deal; dogs get one free bite there would be plenty of options for new insurance.
I heard nothing for months and then on Feb. 6 a process server arrived at my house with a lawsuit. The lineman accused me of failing to confine my dog, even though the alleged bite occurred in my yard, which was protected with an electric dog fence. The lineman said he suffered from “left leg pain,” “scarring to the left thigh,” “pain and suffering, both mental and physical,” and “fear and anxiety pertaining to infection from his wounds, contracting rabies and from the attack itself.”
It sounded horrifying until I got the medical reports. A grainy photograph showed a quarter-sized laceration on the lineman’s upper thigh he said was caused by my dog, although it wasn’t obviously a bite and didn’t require stitches. The emergency-room doctor reported “five tiny 1mm bite marks/abrasions,” “no deep puncture wounds,” gave him a tetanus shot and cleared him to work the same day. The bill was $1,281.65, paid by worker’s comp. The lineman took the next two days off from work anyway.
My soon-to-be-former insurer hired a lawyer to represent me. He was courteous and attentive, answering my calls and emails as he engaged in the mostly futile exercise of preparing a defense. Connecticut, like about half the states, imposes strict liability for dog bites, meaning the owner must pay for any injuries or damage caused by the dog unless the victim was trespassing illegally or tormented the animal. Utility linemen, like postal workers, FedEx drivers and political canvassers, are considered “invitees” with the right to enter your property without notice. Since, as I noted above, there were only two witnesses and one wasn’t talking, the lineman’s accusation was the equivalent of proof. The only remaining question was how much he’d get paid.
I didn’t know any of this before this man came on my property. By mid-February I was pestering my insurance agent about getting coverage to replace QBE. He told me not to worry, but then a few days before my existing policy expired he told me he couldn’t get a quote from anyone with Caesar still on the premises. (Caesar is a 9-year-old toller, a marvelous dog bred originally in Canada to “toll” ducks toward hunters by flicking their tails and making a commotion in the bulrushes on shore. The early breeders supposedly learned this by observing foxes and tollers look a bit like foxes, with red fur and a skinny build. They have no reputation for viciousness, though like most dogs they can be protective of their territory.)
The toller breeding community is small and tight-knit and I figured I could at least give Caesar away to a rescue center. But with the lineman’s lawsuit pending, no one would touch the dog. The liability was too high, I was told. I thought about taking him to the vet to be put down, and then the agent called to say Lloyds would issue a policy, at a higher price, with a complete exclusion for dogs. I bought it.
In July I sat for a one-hour deposition at the plaintiff’s lawyer’s offices, which just happened to be across the street from a major Eversource facility. A junior attorney peppered me with questions that seemed unnecessary given Connecticut’s strict-liability statute: Had the dog bitten anybody before? No, and we don’t know he’s bitten anybody yet. You said you brought a younger dog into the house. Did Caesar seem resentful? You’d have to ask Caesar, I am not a doggie psychologist. Do you put a muzzle on the dog when visitors are around? No, why on earth would I do that?
Having attended a year at Yale Law School as a Knight fellow, I know a bit about civil procedure and it seemed like this young lawyer was either clueless or trying to run the clock, which made little sense since her firm was almost certainly working on contingency. My lawyer looked on silently, racking up the minutes at $140 an hour. After the depo he congratulated me for a good performance.
The lineman didn’t do so well in his deposition. He made the tactical error of admitting his terror of dogs hadn’t kept him from doing his job, and nor had he asked his supervisor to accommodate his fear. Since all his medical bills had been paid by worker’s comp – Eversource hired its own lawyer to recover those costs from the settlement – the claim boiled down to the pain of the laceration, fear and lost wages even though he’d been cleared to work immediately.
“I missed quite a bit of overtime,” he said in the depo, because he took 18.5 hours off and was at the top of the seniority list for overtime. His tax returns, filed with the medical reports to the defense, showed he had household income of more than $170,000 a year.
My lawyer’s final invoice, which must be provided to the insured, shows he worked more than 50 hours on the case for a total of almost $7,500. In talks after Christmas, the two sides worked toward a settlement. The lineman accepted $12,500 for a minor skin abrasion that may or may not have been caused by my dog.
How much of that did he keep? Contingency fees in Connecticut are capped at 33% plus expenses so it’s safe to bet the lineman saw no more than $8,000 after fees. But he also faced a subrogation action by Eversource, which paid his medical bills, so subtract another $2,000 from that. His take was down to $6,000. (Aside: Eversource declined to comment on why the utility, which has meticulous rules to prevent workplace injuries, doesn’t prohibit employees from entering a property with a dog present. Could it be because dog-related injuries are covered by the homeowner’s insurance?)
After my lawyer’s fees and Eversource’s costs in pursuing the subrogation action I figure this incident cost at least $20,000, or $4,000 for each one of those five “tiny 1mm bite marks/abrasions.” That’s considerably less than the $37,214 the Insurance Information Institute reports as the average cost of a dog bite claim in 2015, so I guess I should be glad. But it was an extraordinarily wasteful way to get $6,000 to the lineman for his troubles, which could have been avoided entirely if he’d called me before stepping on my property.
The Centers for Disease Control reports 4.5 million dog bites per year (out of an estimated dog population of 78 million) with children aged 5 to 9 the most common victims. While the number of dog-bite claims has fallen 9.3% since 2003 to 15,532 last year, according to III, the cost per claim has almost doubled. And some insurers are starting to exclude dangerous breeds like pit bulls, Rottweilers, Presa Canarios and Akitas.
“It is absolutely on the insurance companies’ radar,” said Brian G. Flood, a vice president with HUB International and author of Wealth Exposed: Insurance Planning for High Net Worth Individuals and Their Advisors. More insurers are doing walk-through home inspections before issuing policies, he said, and it’s a mistake to try and hide the dog.
“They’re smart enough to see the pictures on the wall with everybody sitting with the family pit bull,” he said. “You’ve got to know the reputation of the breed you’re buying.”
There might be a hidden upside to excluding dogs from coverage: Lawyers might not pursue these cases so eagerly if there’s no insurance to cover them.
“When I hear somebody is attacked by a pit bull and seriously injured I don’t jump,” said Kenneth Phillips, a Beverly Hills lawyer who maintains a website on dog bite law and almost exclusively represents bite plaintiffs. “Almost every time the owner of the dog is on the fringe of society and is uninsured.”
Phillips recommends homeowners examine their insurance policies closely for exclusions for specific breeds or dog- or animal-related claims entirely. He also urges homeowners and tenants to get separate liability policies for their dogs – not surprising, since that’s the source of his fees. A list of specialized insurers is on his site.
Those policies are expensive and riddled with exclusions and special rules, however. Some canine insurers require owners to install high fences or muzzle their pets. Others contain exclusions that might be expensive, such as for “mental anguish” that may or may not be equivalent to pain and suffering, the largest component of many claims. Get it in writing if the agent says an exclusion isn’t what it appears to be. And the costs are out of whack with other forms of insurance: One specialized canine policy to cover my dog cost $568 for $50,000 in coverage and included a mental anguish exclusion. Most insurance companies will sell $500,000 to $1 million in blanket liability coverage to claim-free homeowners for $250.
Not all insurers exclude dogs by breed. State Farm, the largest U.S. home insurer, only excludes dogs if it determines the owner isn’t a “responsible pet owner,” said Heather Paul, a spokesperson.
“Excluding just one type of dog can be dangerous because it gives communities a false sense of safety,” said Paul. “Any dog can bite.”
The best advice I can give is either fence your dogs or install an electric fence far back from the front property line, so it keeps dogs away from the front walk and electric and water meters. And finally, homeowners have more to worry about than just dogs: Most insurance policies include broad exclusions for “commercial activities,” which could involve blogging on the side, selling knit caps on Etsy or letting your kid use the riding mower to make a little money from the neighbors.
As I learned, somebody determined to sue – whether it’s an angry blog subject or a jogger hit by a rock from your mower – can, simply by filing a claim, potentially tag you with unexpected liability or knock you right out of the insurance market.