Owning a house, having a family, and getting a dog is still a common American dream—and not necessarily in that order. Let’s face it, we as a country love dogs. Many new homeowners want to get a dog (if they didn’t have one in their apartment already) once they have a home. And most new homeowners and new dog owners want to do the right thing. So, they get homeowner’s insurance to cover them just in case something happens. But what if that something is that their dog bites someone?
The Problem of Dog Bite Exclusions
There is a lot of latitude in many States with what homeowner’s insurance policies may cover or exclude from coverage. Some exclude inherently dangerous things such as swimming pools, trampolines, or ponds. Others exclude dogs. While the latter is not an issue for non-dog owners, those of us who have dogs need to be aware that not all dog bite exclusions are the same. Some exclude only certain breeds while others use artful language to exclude virtually all dog bite liability coverage while sounding like they only apply to certain breeds. It is the latter policies of which dog owners need to be wary.
Basic Dog Bite Law
To understand why the exclusions are tricky for homeowners, you need to have a basic understanding of dog bite liability law. The majority of states hold dog owners strictly liable for their conduct. However, in a minority of states, including Texas, the owner is only liable if the dog has demonstrated aggression towards a human before and the owner is aware of the incident. The law in these states is known as the “One Free Bite Rule” because the dog owner basically gets the first bite free before he is clearly on notice. States applying the one bite rule for civil liability include Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota (unless the dog is running at large), Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming.
Artfully Crafted Exclusions in the One Free Bite Rule States
If you live in a One Free Bite Rule state, you need to pay particular attention to any dog bite exclusion in your policy. Here is an example of an exclusion used in a recent policy:
20. Vicious Dogs
“Bodily injury” or “property damage” arising out of the actions of any canine that is a:
- Vicious canine;
- Staffordshire Bull Terrier;
- American Pit Bull Terrier;
- Doberman Pinscher;
- Chow Chow; or
- American Staffordshire Terrier.
The exclusion appears to be very specific in excluding certain breeds of dogs. However, the “gotcha” provision of this exclusion is in a definition directly below this section that reads as follows:
For purposes of this exclusion: (1) Vicious canine means a canine, regardless of the breed, that any “insured” knows or should have known has attacked, bitten, or otherwise caused “bodily injury” to any person.
Thanks to the above definition, this policy excludes virtually all liability for dog bites in a one free bite rule state. Remember, under the one free bite rule, you must prove that the dog has been aggressive towards a human. The way you typically prove this is by showing the dog has attacked or bitten someone before and the owner knew or should have known about it. Thus, if you prove liability on the basis of prior aggression, you have excluded the dog from coverage under the policy!
Conclusion & Recommendations
Regardless of whether you live in a One Free Bite Rule state, you need to read your insurance policy and all exclusion and definitions very carefully. Your insurance agent may not even catch this issue and once you sign the contract, you are deemed to have read and understood the terms. One way you may be able to prevent any misunderstanding is to send an email or certified letter to your agent stating exactly what type of dog you have and telling them you want a policy that will specifically cover you if your dog bites anyone under any circumstances. This gives them greater incentive to make sure they understand your needs and issue the right policy. Another option is to purchase insurance called canine liability insurance—liability insurance specifically to protect you when your dog bites. If you have any doubt about any exclusion in your policy, have a lawyer review it.