"This week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week," I explained to Parker, my 8-year-old golden retriever. Since this news bulletin contained none of his favorite words -- cookie, walk, ride, dinner -- his interest level quickly waned.
But yours should not. Dog bites are on the rise, along with the cost of liability lawsuits stemming from close encounters of the canine kind.
Dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims in 2011, costing insurers $479 million, according to the latest figures from the Insurance Information Institute.
The total of 16,292 dog bite claims that were paid out last year represented a 3.3 increase in the number of claims from the year before. However, the average cost per claim, $29,396, represented a 12.3 percent increase from $26,166 in 2010. Since 2003, the cost of the average dog bite claim has risen 53.4 percent due to increased medical costs and the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards, according to the III.
While laws concerning dog bite liability differ state to state, there are three ways your dog's misbehavior can come back to bite you. In states with a dog-bite statute, you're automatically liable for injuries or property damage caused by your dog. In states with the so-called one-bite rule, you're given a liability pass only on your dog's first mistake. And where negligence laws exist, you're presumed liable if your dog bit someone due to your unreasonable carelessness or negligence.
While your homeowners or rental insurance typically cover dog bite claims up to a $100,000 to $300,000 limit, once your dog bites someone, your insurer is likely to raise your premium and/or exclude your dog from your policy. Since your risk of a costly lawsuit increases with your assets, III recommends an umbrella policy, which can add $1 million to $10 million to your liability coverage.
There is some truth to the saying, "There are no bad dogs, just bad owners." While accidents can happen with any animal, III suggests these tips to protect your family from canine liability:
- Choose a suitable dog for your household and neighborhood.
- Spend time training and socializing your pet, especially around children and other animals.
- Spay or neuter your pet: studies show a dog is three times more likely to bite if it's not neutered.
- Play nonaggressive games such as fetch rather than aggressive games such as tug-of-war.
- Discourage children from disturbing a dog that is eating or sleeping.
- Never approach a strange dog, and avoid eye contact with a dog that appears threatening.
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