When it comes to dog bites, many victims muzzle themselves.
Dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all home insurance liability claims paid in 2010. However, most dog-bite victims don’t even report being attacked. When dog bites aren't reported, insurance claims are not filed and victims don't receive insurance payments. This is despite the fact that dog-bite injuries usually are covered by home and renter's insurance policies.
Only about 16,000 dog-bite victims receive home or renter's insurance payments each year, even though an estimated 5 million Americans are bitten by dogs annually, says Kenneth Morgan Phillips, the only attorney in the United States who solely represents people who've been seriously injured by dogs. Of the 5 million or so who are bitten, only about one-fifth of them seek medical treatment, according to Phillips.
“That is because the bites aren’t serious enough to warrant medical attention," says Phillips, whose law practice is Dog Bite Law. "If the bite comes from a small dog, the damage may be insignificant."
Other reasons that victims don't pursue dog-bite claims:
• About three-fourths of the victims are relatives, friends or neighbors of the dog owners.
• Some victims aren't aware that the dog owner's home or renter's insurance will cover a dog bite.
• Some victims fear that a dog that has bitten someone may be taken away from its owner, which Phillips says is rare.
Cost of dog-bite claims on the rise
In 2010, the average cost of a dog-bite claim was $26,166, up 5 percent from $24,840 in 2009, according to the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. That tab covers medical bills for the victim's treatment. It also can cover long-term care, lost wages and other expenses.
“The average cost per claim has risen over the last eight years,” says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute. “This can be attributed to increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards given to plaintiffs, which have risen well above the rate of inflation in recent years.”
Standard policies cover dog bites
Home and renter's insurance policies normally cover dog-bite liability, with anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 worth of coverage. If a claim exceeds the liability limit, the dog owner is responsible for any damages above that amount, including legal expenses. A liability policy also provides no-fault medical coverage for a dog bite, generally worth $1,000 to $5,000. This enables a victim to submit medical bills directly to the dog owner's home or renter's insurance company.
“Most insurance companies will insure homeowners with dogs. However, once a dog has bitten someone, your insurance company may charge a higher premium or exclude the dog from coverage,” Worters says. “Some companies require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites. Others will cover a pet only if the owner takes the dog to classes aimed at modifying its behavior.”
Some home and renter's insurance policies exclude certain breeds, such as pit bulls, German Shepherds, Siberian Huskies, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers and Alaskan Malamutes.
Jeff McCarthy, an insurance agent with Harrington Insurance Agency in Massachusetts, suggests checking with your insurance agent before you buy a dog.
“If you have a Doberman Pinscher, German Shepherd, pit bull or Rottweiler, you'll most likely have to buy your home insurance from the more-expensive state insurance pool or a specialty insurer,” McCarthy says. “The vast majority of breeds fall into the no-problem category, unless your particular dog has bitten people in the past.If you have a certificate showing that the dog has gotten obedience training, it may help.”
In 2008, about 9,500 Americans suffered serious dog bites, compared with about 5,100 in 1993, according to a report released in 2010 by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
"The increase was far greater than population growth, and pet ownership increased only slightly during the period. Experts were not able to explain the increase," Worters says.
The Insurance Information Institute recommends that dog owners buy personal liability coverage, also known as an umbrella policy, on top of standard home or renter's insurance. “This protects you against personal liabilities, such as dog bites,” Worters says. "A single lawsuit can end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and lost wages.”
Umbrella coverage usually ranges from $1 million to $10 million. The first $1 million worth of coverage costs about $150 to $300 a year, with subsequent layers going for $50 to $75 a year.
In the end, Phillips says, "the best protection is to be a responsible dog owner."