One of the White House’s two canine residents was involved in a biting incident on March 29: the Bidens’ German Shepherd, Major, reportedly nipped at a National Park Service employee during a walk on the White House South Lawn. The employee was assessed by the White House medical unit and returned to work without injury. The incident has dominated national headlines in part because it is the second biting event in March involving the 3-year-old rescue dog.
The first biting incident occurred on March 8, when Major reportedly bit and caused a minor injury to a member of White House security. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the incident stemmed from the dog being surprised by an unfamiliar person. Following that incident the Bidens’ dogs were temporarily moved to the family home in Delaware, where Major received extra training, and returned to the White House on March 21.
“Anyone with a dog in their home assumes liability for the dog’s actions,” said Deborah Coleman, Associate Managing Director, Burns & Wilcox, Baltimore, Maryland.
Dog bites have been on the rise across the U.S.1 and Canada2 during the COVID-19 pandemic. These attacks can cause significant injury and trauma, which is why every pet owner should review their Homeowners Insurance policy for dog bite coverage and consider investing in Personal Umbrella Insurance, said Wendy McCormack, Senior Underwriter, Personal Insurance, Burns & Wilcox, Toronto, Ontario.
Anyone with a dog in their home assumes liability for the dog’s actions.
“Dogs, like other animals, may bite or behave aggressively,” McCormack said. “Precautions need to be taken to avoid serious injuries.”
Even a consistently mild-tempered dog can have a moment of aggression unexpectedly or when provoked, said Pamela Alphabet, Regional Practice Group Leader, Personal Insurance, Burns & Wilcox, Scottsdale, Arizona. “A dog may not have ever bitten anyone—but it could,” she said. “Homeowners Insurance can help with some of the costs related to a dog bite, but homeowners should consider broad limits to ensure adequate coverage.”
Spike in emergency room visits for dog bites
For some households, the early days of COVID-19 quarantine presented an ideal opportunity to bring home a new dog. The trend of the “pandemic puppy,” during which many households adopted new pets, could have driven a rise in dog bite incidents.3 According to a study published in October in the Journal of Pediatrics, one U.S. hospital saw a nearly threefold increase in emergency room visits for children with dog bites after the implementation of stay-at-home orders.4
“Many families with adults working and children attending school from home have taken advantage of the opportunity to adopt a dog,” Coleman said. “It stands to reason there would be an increase in dog bites.”
Homeowners Insurance policy coverage could help with the cost of legal defense, medical bills for the injured party, and other expenses when homeowners are sued in the wake of a biting incident involving their dog. “The liability portion of a Homeowners Insurance policy’s coverage could offer assistance with expenses related to a dog bite,” Coleman explained.
Other covered expenses could include costs related to the bite victim’s trauma and mental distress, Alphabet said.
There is wide variance among states when it comes to legal statutes governing liability for dog-bite injuries; however, many statutes hinge on what is known as “strict liability”—the notion that dog owners are responsible for any damages resulting from their dog’s actions.5
Many such statutes dictate owner liability for dog bites irrespective of whether the owner’s negligence was a contributing factor to the incident or whether the dog was known to have exhibited dangerous behavior—the so-called “one-bite rule.” Victims of dog bites or attacks do not need to prove the owner was careless or the dog had a dangerous temperament to seek damages under these strict liability laws.
In some cases, strict liability laws apply only to dog bites; in other cases, the laws apply to damages from other potential injuries or property damage a dog could inflict, such as knocking over a person on a bicycle or a pedestrian.
Under a set of Ontario statutes known as the Dog Owners’ Liability Act,6 a proceeding can be undertaken in the Ontario Court of Justice against a dog owner whose dog bites or attacks a person or animal or behaves in a manner that threatens the safety of others—or if the dog owner fails to take reasonable precautions to prevent their dog from committing those acts.
Appropriate insurance could help dog owners avoid bankruptcy
Dog bite claims in the U.S. averaged $43,653 in 20197 and dog bite damages in Canada have also totaled in the tens of thousands.8 “Settlements have gone into the millions for dog bites and it can also affect a homeowner’s future insurability,” Alphabet said, noting that homeowners could face dog exclusions on their insurance policies following dog bite claims.
If a Homeowners Insurance policy’s coverage limits are insufficient to cover a court judgment for dog bite damages, the dog owner could be required to pay the remainder out of pocket. In such situations Personal Umbrella Insurance can be extremely beneficial, providing additional liability coverage above and beyond other policies’ limits. While a Homeowners Insurance policy often has a liability coverage limit between $300,000 to $2 million in the U.S. and Canada, Personal Umbrella Insurance policies can include limits up to $5 million in excess coverage.
“If a dog owner is sued, he or she may need the level of coverage provided by a Personal Umbrella Insurance policy,” noted McCormack.
Personal Umbrella Insurance is generally affordable; however many dog owners are unaware that they could need it or assume it will be unaffordable. “If a serious dog bite occurs, an owner could wind up filing bankruptcy to avoid paying out of pocket,” Coleman added. “My view is that dog owners cannot afford to not have this coverage.”
A man accused of stealing a golf cart in Scottsdale, Arizona in 2019 was awarded a $100,000 settlement from the city for extensive injuries he reportedly sustained from a police dog attack.9 Last June, a Winnipeg dog owner faced a lawsuit from the Attorney General of Canada after the dog charged a Canada Post mail carrier, allegedly causing injury and trauma to an extent that rendered the postal worker unable to work or engage in daily tasks of living for an extended period.10
The physical injuries from dog bites can range in severity from minimal to those requiring reconstructive surgery, Coleman said. “The cost of reconstructive surgery could range from $30,000 to $50,000 or more,” she said.
Although some may assume a Personal Umbrella Insurance policy is appropriate or affordable for more affluent homeowners, that is not necessarily the case, Alphabet pointed out. “Any individual with an increased risk of being sued needs this coverage—pet owners should absolutely consider it.”
Homeowners should take time to review all policy wording and go through their coverage with their insurance brokers. Exposure to dog-bite lawsuits can be mitigated by taking proper precautions.
In 2015, a DeKalb County, Georgia jury awarded an 8-year-old girl damages of $72 million after a 2010 dog bite attack that required the partial amputation of the girl’s left arm and caused severe injury to her right arm.11 The dogs involved in the incident escaped from the property where they were kept and attacked the girl while she played basketball in front of her home. The judge reduced the award to just under $37 million due to a state law limiting punitive damages to $250,000; nevertheless, the case illustrates the potential financial fallout from a dog bite.
“Jury awards in dog bite lawsuits can be huge,” McCormack said.
Homeowners Insurance policies will vary to some extent, explained McCormack, so homeowners should be sure to review exactly what is included in their policy. “Homeowners should take time to review all policy wording and go through their coverage with their insurance brokers,” McCormack said. “Exposure to dog-bite lawsuits can be mitigated by taking proper precautions.”
Coverage can extend to dog bite incidents away from home
In January, a 3-year-old girl was attacked by a dog inside a Texas restaurant and required stitches to her face.12 The dog was reportedly wearing a service dog vest in the restaurant. Pet owners who walk their dogs or bring them to public places should know that their Homeowners Insurance and Personal Umbrella Insurance can extend to dog-bite incidents that take place outside of their homes.
“Homeowners Insurance liability coverage and Personal Umbrella Insurance policies can help with expenses related to dog-bite incidents for which individuals are held personally liable, no matter where they take place,” Coleman explained.
Pet owners should carefully consider where they choose to bring their dogs — particularly if a dog is uncomfortable around children, who are most at risk for dog bites but often unaware they should ask first before approaching a strange animal.13
Homeowners Insurance and Personal Umbrella Insurance policies could also potentially help with coverage for expenses related to damage a dog may cause to a third party’s property, Alphabet added.
Insurance companies often impose limits on coverage for certain dog breeds or refuse to insure homeowners who have dogs on that list, which can make it more difficult to find coverage. German Shepherds like the Bidens’ dogs, for example, are often categorized as a higher-risk breed for Homeowners Insurance purposes. Dogs with a history of biting incidents could also be excluded from Homeowners Insurance policy coverage.
“Most carriers have a list of eight to 10 breeds they exclude from liability coverage,” explained Coleman. “There are several carriers that will write a policy for a homeowner who has a dog on the list of excluded breeds or a dog with a prior bite history, but they will put an exclusion of liability on the policy for incidents related to dogs.”
Dog bites can happen to anyone
Dog owners should also be aware that some insurance carriers will have safety requirements involving dogs, such as fencing or signage on the property. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), dog owners can help mitigate the risk of dog bites by spaying and neutering their pets, socializing them early and often, never leaving them unsupervised (especially with children), keeping them from common triggers for aggressive behavior like unfamiliar places, crowds and loud noises, and seeking the assistance of a professional dog trainer immediately if their dog exhibits any signs of aggression.14
A pet owner’s number one responsibility to others is to avoid an incident.
“Dog owners have an obligation to do everything they can to protect others from their dog,” said McCormack.
Although dog owners usually believe they know their dog’s temperament and can predict whether their pet would ever be aggressive, dog bites can happen to anyone, McCormack cautioned. This risk, she stresses, makes the peace of mind afforded by adequate Homeowners Insurance liability limits and Personal Umbrella Insurance well worth the investment.
Added Alphabet: “A pet owner’s number one responsibility to others is to avoid an incident.”
1 McNiff, Serena. “Pandemic Unleashes 'Startling' Rise in Dog Bites.” U.S. News & World Report, September 9, 2020. 2 Cusack, Leanne. “Dog bites increasing during pandemic and a lawyer's tips on your responsibilities as a dog owner.” CTV News, August 18, 2020. 3 Michigan Medicine. “One in 10 older adults have gotten a ‘pandemic pet,’ poll finds.” EurekAlert, March 22, 2021. 4 Klass, Perri. “Got a Pandemic Puppy? Learn How to Prevent Dog Bites.” The New York Times, February 23, 2021. 5 Randolph, Mary. “Strict Liability Dog-Bite Laws.” Nolo.com, December 2020. 6 Dog Owners’ Liability Act, RSO 1990, c. D16. Government of Ontario, Canada. 7 Johnson, Adam. “Dog Bite Claims Per State.” QuoteWizard, September 4, 2020. 8 Diocampo, Kristoffer. “Dog Bite Attacks: What is the Settlement Worth?” Ontario Trial Lawyers Association Blog, April 9, 2020. 9 Burkitt, Bree. “Scottsdale approves $100,000 settlement for man attacked by police K-9.” AZ Central, May 6, 2020. 10 Unger, Danton. “Winnipeg pet owner sued after Canada Post employee was injured in a dog attack.” CTV News, June 26, 2020. 11 “DeKalb jury awards girl $72 million in pit bull attack.” 11Alive Atlanta. WXIA, January 14, 2015. 12 Hatfield, Mycah. “Authorities investigate dog wearing service vest that bit toddler at restaurant.” ABC 13 Houston. KTRK, January 12, 2021. 13 “Dog Bites.” City of New York Health Department. 14 “Dog Bite Prevention.” American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.