Back to Spring 2022 Issue

A Refresher on Underwriting Dog Liability

Spring 2022 Issue

By Melissa Stream, Underwriting Consultant

Dog bites are a problem in the insurance industry. Liability claims for dog bites and other dog-related injuries cost homeowners insurers $854 million in 2020, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

“Despite the COVID-19 pandemic keeping more people at home in 2020 and an increase in home deliveries, the number of dog bite claims in the United States dropped by 4.6 percent from 2019,” the Insurance Information Institute reports. “Additionally, a February 2021 survey from the Insurance Research Council, Consumer Responses to the Pandemic and Implications for Insurance, found that 21 percent of homeowners reported adopting a dog in 2020.”

While claims have decreased, the average cost of dog bite claims keeps rising due to increased medical costs and related legal costs. Underwriting is important when a manager learns that an insured has a dog in their home.

The Insurance Information Institute also says, “in 29 states, dog owners are liable for injuries their pets cause, with some exceptions such as if the dog was provoked, according to a Triple-I analysis of dog bite laws compiled by the American Property Casualty Insurers Association as of March 2021. In 17 states and the District of Columbia, liability is not automatically granted but attacks are classified as misdemeanors or, in extreme cases, as felonies, with fines. There are no laws for dog bites in four states—Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, and North Dakota.

Dog owners’ liability: There are three kinds of law that impose liability on owners:

  • A dog-bite statute: where the dog owner is automatically liable for any injury or property damage the dog causes without provocation.
  • The one-bite rule: where the dog owner is responsible for an injury caused by a dog if the owner knew the dog was likely to cause that type of injury—in this case, the victim must prove the owner knew the dog was dangerous.
  • Negligence laws: where the dog owner is liable if the injury occurred because the dog owner was unreasonably careless (negligent) in controlling the dog.”

Any Dog Can Bite

Dogs bite for many reasons, but in many situations it’s a reaction:

  • They may be sick or injured.
  • They are in a stressful situation.
  • They are scared or have been startled.
  • They are defending themselves, their owner, or their territory.
  • They are overly excited during play and nip or bite.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) estimates there are 85 million dogs in U.S. homes and each year about 4.5 million people are bitten or injured by dogs.

Children are the most common victims of dog bites and are more likely to be severely injured. The ASPCA recommends that young children should always be supervised around dogs.

Utility workers and postal carriers are next on the list of common victims of dog bites. According to the U.S. Postal Service, more than 5,800 postal service employees were bitten by dogs in 2020 while trying to deliver the mail.

It’s beneficial if a dog has a safe, comfortable space in the home to be alone and away from others if they (or the owner) choose. If there has been a change in the dog’s behavior, including aggression, the owner should contact their veterinarian for a consultation.

Tenants’ Dogs

What about an insured/landlord that has a tenant with a dog on the prohibited breed list? Can the mutual decline/nonrenew a policy to the insured in that scenario? Can the mutual require that the insured not rent to tenants with specific breeds of dogs? We often receive these questions.

Our common recommendation is to underwrite the insured (landlord) well:

  • Do they have a written rental/lease agreement for their tenants? A written agreement can outline what is allowed in a rental unit and can be valuable if a tenant is found to have an animal not allowed in the agreement. Even an insured with “only a couple” of rental dwellings should use a written agreement for every tenant.
  • Do they require their tenants to obtain and maintain renter’s insurance, or at the least, personal liability insurance? Although it’s uncommon in rental agreements, we recommend that your insureds (landlords) require tenants to obtain and maintain renter’s insurance and in addition, name your insured/landlord as an additional insured. The insured should request proof of coverage on an annual basis. A tenant with any animal is responsible for their care, custody and control and should also be held responsible to obtain and maintain liability insurance.
  • Do they have any limits on pets (a maximum number of cats or dogs or a weight limit on any one dog)? Any dog can bite, but injury from larger dogs can be more severe than smaller dogs or cats. Having multiple pets in a small space can raise their stress level and increase the risk of property damage.

We also recommend including the dog liability underwriting questions in the WRC Liability Manual on your applications. For your convenience, you can download them here. Incorporating all the questions could help you navigate an underwriting dilemma involving a dog owned by one of your insureds.