Insurance Issues in Texas Dog Bite Cases

When a dog attack occurs, the damages can be devastating.  The scarring and damage caused by the ripping and tearing of the dog’s teeth can be very costly to repair.   Some cannot be repaired. When this happens, the first question the victim must address, is: “how will the medical costs be  paid for?”

Unfortunately, the Texas homestead laws and bankruptcy laws can make recovering damages against individuals with no insurance coverage very difficult. As a result, the existence of insurance can often be very critical to a successful case. There are several types of insurance that can be beneficial to a dog attack victim. The three sources to consider are:

  • Personal health insurance
  • The dog owner’s homeowner’s liability insurance and/or no fault insurance
  • Renter’s insurance
  • Dog liability insurance

Texas Homestead Laws & Bankruptcy Laws Liability For Judgments

Texas homestead laws and bankruptcy laws protect debtors from creditors.  Under the Texas Homestead Act, a judgment creditor cannot take away a person’s home, car, tools of their trade, certain animals, pets and up to $60,000 in additional personal property in order to satisfy a judgment debt.  For victims of dog attacks, this means that when a negligent dog owner’s dog injures them, they may take them to trial and win, but they may never collect a dime from the individual.   If the owner does not own his home outright, he can simply transfer any assets he holds in excess of the $60,000 protected threshold into payment against his mortgage and he is now “judgment proof.”   Additionally, a judgment proof debtor can extinguish liability for any judgment simply by filing bankruptcy.   Thus, a judgment against an uninsured dog owner can be difficult if not impossible to collect. This is why looking for all avenues of insurance to collect against is critical.

Personal Health Insurance

Because some dog bite cases may result in uncollectable judgments, it is important to inquire whether you the victim have health insurance available to cover the costs up front.  Some health insurance policies will deny coverage if they believe that you have  another avenue of recovery for your medical. This is because they have a clause that allows them to become secondary to any available liability insurance.

When the victim is a child, sometime medicaid can be made to pay for the medical expenses.  It is up to the parents to apply and try to get medicaid coverage.  As with any insurance, there are always problems that develop.  Insurance plans have certain deadlines and requirements of coding procedures that they use as an excuse to kick back claims and refuse to pay them. If they victim does not stay on top of what is paid and what is rejected, often the medical provider will get lazy and let the claim filing period lapse thereby losing the right to file a claim. Thus, it is important to stay on top of any health insurance claim.

Homeowner’s Insurance

Homeowner’s insurance is the most common source of recovery for dog bite claims.  There are two separate parts of a homeowner’s policy that may apply when a dog attacks.  However, dog and/or animal exclusions may render homeowner’s insurance inapplicable.

A. Homeowner’s Medpay Insurance

Medical payments is optional coverage or “medpay” insurance is a form of no fault insurance that kicks in to cover any persons who are injured upon the insured property.  It is designed to cover medical expenses incurred when someone gets injured on the property in any way.  The advantage of this policy is that the typical medpay policy requires no proof of liability or negligence on the part of the dog owner. You just prove the injury occurred on the covered property.  The downside of this type of policy is that it is typically a very small policy. It may be as low as $500.00.  Which means it is unlikely to cover the full extent of damages involved in a dog attack case. It also does not cover intangible damages such as pain, suffering, mental anguish, scarring, disfigurement or punitive damages.

B. Homeowner’s Liability Insurance

Homeowner’s liability insurance is the primary source of recovery in dog bite cases.  Homeowner’s liability insurance is insurance that covers the homeowner in the event that their negligence or actions causes injury to another. Homeowner’s insurance protects the homeowner even if they injury occurs off the property–as is often the case of a dog bite that occurs while the dog is running at large.  Homeowner’s liability insurance may range from as low as $50,000 up to the millions and is largely determined by the amount of assets the homeowner has to protect.  The disadvantages of this type of insurance is that you must prove negligence on the part of the owner. In the case of dog attacks, this may be difficult due to the Texas one bite rule. Additionally, homeowner’s liability insurance is subject to the coverage terms of the contract–meaning that it may be subject to exclusions.

C. Dog Bite Exclusions In Homeowner’s Liability Policies

Dog attacks across the United States cost insurance companies hundreds of millions of dollars each year. As a result, many homeowner’s insurance companies have added exclusions to their policies to combat the cost of dog bite verdicts and settlements.  The exclusions may be as restricting as to exclude “all damages caused by animals.” Or, they may be very narrowly-tailored to exclude dog attacks by certain specific breeds that are generally thought to be more likely to be dangerous dogs such as pit bulls, presa canarios, rottweilers or akitas.  These exclusions must be carefully read to determine whether they apply in any specific case.

In addition to animal exclusions, many homeowner’s liability insurance policies contain other exclusions that can affect a dog bite claim.  An exclusion against paying for punitive damages can prevent an injury victim from being able to fully recover against repeat offenders and grossly irresponsible dog owners. Additionally, most homeowner’s policies exclude renter’s, residents of the home and sometimes even persons in control of the premises such as a dog sitter.

Renter’s Insurance

Apartment and condo dwellers who do not own the property are generally not covered under the property owner’s homeowner’s  insurance policy. To make up for this, renter’s can obtain their own renter’s liability insurance policy.  These policies work exactly like homeowner’s policies but are for renters.  Unfortunately, it is rare to see a renter carry this type of coverage.

Dog Liability Insurance

When a homeowner’s insurance policy does not provide liability coverage that includes his dog, he may be able to obtain insurance through some companies that issue independent dog liability insurance. This may be necessary in cases where a dog has attacked before and the state has declared it a dangerous dog. Once a dog is declared dangerous by a municipality, the owner is required by law to carry $100,000.00 in liability coverage.  This type of coverage may also be required in order to keep a dog in certain rental properties. These policies can be purchased in various amounts and are typically found where some law or housing rule requires the owner to carry a specific amount of dog liability coverage. They are extremely uncommon.

Conclusion and Comments

Finding insurance coverage is very important in dog bite cases dues to Texas homestead and bankruptcy laws that are unfriendly to creditors. All types of insurance coverage should be explored  as avenues of recovery including health insurance, homeowner’s liability and medpay insurance, renter’s insurance, and dog liability insurance.  Because finding out what coverage exists can be difficult, it would be wise in every dog attack case to speak with a dog bite attorney to determine what your rights and likelihood of prevailing are. Simmons and Fletcher, P.C., offer free consultations to victims of dog attacks in Texas.