Dog owners are usually liable when their animals injure people or damage property—meaning they could be on the hook for a big bill to compensate the victims. In many cases, insurance may take at least some of the financial sting—at least the first time it happens. Insurance companies do whatever they can to minimize their losses, so they may exclude all dogs, certain breeds, or any dog that has already bitten someone.
Dog owners and dog-bite victims will both be glad to know that homeowner's or renter's insurance usually covers damage from dog bites. A standard homeowner's policy covers any legal liability the owner incurs as a result of negligence, up to the dollar limit in the policy. According to the Insurance Information Institute's Dog Bite Liability report, more than a third of all homeowner's insurance liability claims in 2016 involved dog bites. The average amount paid for each claim was $33,230.
Most of these policies insure against any legal liabilities the policyholder incurs, even away from the home. So if the dog bites someone on the sidewalk or in the park, it's usually covered.
That's the good news. The bad news is that after a dog has bitten or injured someone, the insurer will typically refuse to renew the policy, raise the premiums, or exclude the dog from coverage. An insurer may not issue a policy in the first place if it finds out the homeowner has a dog that has already attacked someone or shown aggressive tendencies. And some companies refuse to cover certain dogs (like pit bulls, German Shepherds, and Rottweilers) that show up in studies of breeds responsible for a disproportionate number of bites.
Many homeowners' policies have exclusions for “business pursuits,” meaning the insurer won't cover claims from injuries related to a homeowner's full-time or part-time business activities. For instance, a homeowner who regularly breeds and sells puppies on the side may find that insurance won't cover a claim from a potential buyer who was bitten while looking at a litter.
Your policy probably requires you to notify the insurance company of significant changes in your circumstances. If you don't do that, the insurer may well cancel the policy or refuse a claim. Significant changes could include the fact that you bought a dog (if you previously told the insurer you didn't have one), your dog has bitten someone, or it has been declared dangerous or vicious under a local dangerous-dog law.
When a dog bites in a car, through a car window, or from the back of an open pickup truck, the claim may be covered under the owner's car insurance or homeowner's insurance (unless that policy excludes injures connected with vehicles). Often the two insurance companies end up duking it out in court, each trying to escape an obligation to pay.
If your homeowner's or renter's policy doesn't cover dog bites, you may be able to buy separate canine liability coverage. But this could be expensive, particularly if the dog:
Several states require that owners of dangerous or vicious dogs get special liability insurance as a condition for keeping the animals. In Minnesota, for example, dangerous-dog owners must post a bond or obtain insurance with at least $300,000 worth of coverage (Minn. Stat. § 347.51).
Many insurance policies require the company to pay a policyholder's legal obligation due to bodily injury or property damage. In some states, courts may double or triple an award, or add what's known as “punitive damages,” in order to punish a dog owner whose misconduct led to the bite or other damage. Courts don't all agree on whether standard insurance policies cover punitive damages. But of course, punitive damages won't be covered if the policy language specifically excludes them.
If you've been injured by someone else's dog, a personal injury attorney can explain how the law applies to your situation and can help ensure that you get full compensation for all of your medical expenses and other damages. When your dog has caused injury or damage, your insurance company should assign an attorney to the case. But if you don't have insurance or the company denies the claim, you may need to talk with your own lawyer—preferably one experienced in personal injury defense.