Does Homeowners Insurance Cover Dog Bite Legal Claims?

Key Points:

  • If your dog bites someone due to your negligence—on or off your property— the victim has a potential legal claim against you for medical expenses and related costs.
  • Most homeowners insurance policies provide personal liability coverage that protects the insured from negligence claims, including ones arising from a dog bite.
  • Any insurance settlement the victim receives should fully compensate them for the attack, whether the costs are economic or noneconomic in nature.
  • When the owner is not in violation of any leash laws and the dog has no history of biting or aggressive behavior, negligence can be harder to prove, and the insurance company may try to deny or reduce compensation.

When you buy a home, you purchase an insurance policy to protect your property—the structure of the house as well as the belongings you keep there. While homeowners insurance is typically used to pay for property damage related to your home, most policies provide personal liability coverage as well.

Personal liability coverage pays for injuries or property damage sustained by others for which you’re legally responsible. In other words, this type of insurance protects you from having to pay negligence claims out of your own pocket if someone sues you. Whether you’re at home or away, if you damage someone else’s property or you’re responsible for someone being accidentally injured, your personal liability policy provides coverage.

A copy of a homeowners insurance policy

For example, assume that a friend is visiting your home and trips over a crack in your driveway. They fall to the pavement and break their hip, which requires extensive medical care, physical therapy, and time off work to recover. You could be held liable for your friend’s medical bills and other expenses, but because you have personal liability coverage in your homeowner’s policy, your insurance company would pay these costs instead.

Similarly, if your dog bites someone due to your negligence—on or off your property— the victim has a potential legal claim against you for medical expenses and related costs. Your personal liability insurance pays out when someone is injured because of negligence, so dog bites are usually covered under your homeowners policy.

Which Dog Bite Expenses Should Be Covered by a Homeowners Policy?

Depending on the severity, a dog attack can result in serious physical harm and emotional trauma for the victim. If the victim is left scarred or disfigured from the attack, their life will be forever altered. Any insurance settlement the victim receives should fully compensate them for these losses, whether the costs are economic or noneconomic in nature.

Though dog bites can involve a variety of financial costs, medical treatment is often the largest expense. When ambulance transportation, emergency room care, surgery, and doctor’s appointments are required, the bills can pile up quickly. Fortunately, these medical expenses can be recovered as damages under the negligent dog owner’s homeowners policy. If the victim needs follow-up care, physical therapy, or rehabilitation, these costs are included as well.

In addition, the victim is entitled to compensation for lost wages if they missed work while recovering and/or their ability to work in the future has been affected. A dog bite victim is also entitled to compensation for noneconomic losses such as mental anguish, pain and suffering, and diminished quality of life, though these costs can be harder to calculate and prove.

Generally, the insurance company will not include lost wages or noneconomic losses in a settlement unless the victim is represented by an attorney who knows how to recover this type of compensation. Note that legal fees can also be covered by the homeowners liability policy. What Coverage Is Available on a Homeowners Policy for a Dog Bite?

When you suffer injuries from a dog bite through no fault of your own, you likely need to file a claim with the dog owner’s insurance company to recover compensation. While homeowner’s insurance doesn’t specifically outline coverage for dog bites, injuries from dogs are rolled into personal liability coverage. Because an owner can be held personally liable for their dog’s actions, this type of insurance provides protection against having to pay those costs out of pocket.

If you file a valid dog bite claim, the insurance company is responsible for paying the full cost of the attack up to the limit of the liability policy. The full cost includes current and future medical treatment, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other losses you suffer because of the attack. The amount of coverage available varies, but a typical homeowner’s liability policy provides a limit between $100,000 and $500,000.

Note that if your dog bite injuries were minor (i.e., only needed a few stitches), the owner’s homeowners insurance medical payments coverage may be used to pay for costs. Medical payments coverage is a no-fault type of insurance that has a lower limit than liability coverage and is generally used for smaller medical bills.

If your injuries were more severe, however, you and your attorney should focus on recovering compensation from the dog owner’s personal liability policy. After all, the homeowner purchased coverage to protect them—there’s no reason to look elsewhere if the policy fully compensates you. And if your costs exceed the liability policy limit, you can seek the remaining amount from the dog owner directly after you exhaust insurance coverage.

In situations where your costs exceed the insurance limit or the owner has no personal liability coverage, filing a lawsuit against the dog owner may be your best option. If you receive a judgment against the owner, you and your attorney can collect compensation from their personal assets.

Unfortunately, it is often more difficult to recover compensation from someone’s personal assets than from a well-funded insurance company. The reason is simple. Most people who have significant assets purchase insurance to protect themselves—those who can’t afford it are less likely to have good coverage.

Can a Personal Umbrella Policy Help Cover a Dog Bite Settlement?

Even if you purchase homeowners insurance that includes a large amount of personal liability coverage, you may still be liable for damages that exceed the limit of your policy. The same is true for auto insurance if you’re found liable for damages related to a car accident. If the injuries you cause are catastrophic, it could mean financial ruin for you and your family.

If you have umbrella insurance, however, you have additional coverage to protect you in such a scenario. Umbrella insurance provides extra liability protection beyond the limits of your other policies, including homeowners, renters, auto, boat, and more. Umbrella insurance can also be used as primary insurance for losses not covered by your other policies (remember that umbrella insurance doesn’t cover your own injuries or property damage).

In a dog bite case, for example, assume that someone let their dog run loose in the neighborhood in violation of local ordinances, and the dog caused a child to suffer severe injuries. The child required multiple surgeries to treat the wounds and was left with lasting scars, disability, and trauma. The economic and noneconomic costs of the accident totaled almost $1 million, but the dog owner’s personal liability policy limit was $500,000.

After the homeowners policy is exhausted, the dog owner could be held liable for the remaining damages. If the owner has umbrella insurance, it could cover the difference between the homeowners insurance payout and what the dog owner still owes to the victim.

When Will the Insurance Company Deny a Dog Bite Claim?

Though homeowners insurance covers most dog bite claims, there are circumstances in which the insurance company will exclude or deny coverage. In some states, insurance companies are allowed to exclude certain breeds of dog (e.g., pit bulls, Rottweilers, etc.) from coverage. But in Georgia, carriers are not permitted to exclude liability coverage for a dog unless it has a history of biting or aggressive behavior.

If the dog has been excluded from the owner’s personal liability policy based on a previous attack, you and your attorney may have to file a legal claim against the owner to recover compensation. Even if the dog has not been excluded from coverage, however, the insurance company may deny your claim for other reasons.

One of the most common justifications for denying a claim is that the victim provoked the dog. If there is evidence that you scared or hurt the dog or otherwise caused it to feel threatened, the insurance company may deny your injury claim. If you trespassed in the dog’s yard or entered the dog’s home without permission, for example, you may be considered responsible.

When it comes to trespassing and/or provocation, adults are generally held to a higher standard than children because children are less capable of understanding the risk of injury. For example, a small child is not expected to know that going into a neighbor’s yard to pet their dog can be dangerous, so a child in that situation could recover compensation even though an adult may not.

Many cities in Georgia have local ordinances requiring dogs to be restrained on a leash in public places, so liability is clear when the dog bites someone while running loose. And remember that homeowners insurance covers dog bites no matter where they occur.

But if the owner is not in violation of any leash laws and the dog has no history of biting or aggressive behavior, negligence may be unclear. For example, if a dog that has never attacked anyone bites a victim while off leash at a dog park, the insurance company may determine that its insured wasn’t negligent and refuse to pay.

Depending on the facts, the insurance company may argue that you were partially at fault for the attack and only agree to pay reduced compensation. Because Georgia is a comparative negligence state, your compensation can be reduced by your percentage of fault if you were partially to blame, and you can’t recover at all if your percentage is 50 percent or greater.

Challenges to Receiving Compensation in Dog Bite Claims

Aside from the defenses an insurance company may use to exclude or deny coverage, there can be additional challenges to overcome when seeking compensation for a dog bite. First, if the dog owner is not cooperative, it can be difficult to obtain the relevant coverage information you need to file a claim. And unlike auto insurance, most people don’t carry their homeowners insurance information with them.

If you’re considering filing a claim, you should ask the dog owner for their homeowners insurance information. If they refuse to produce it, your attorney may need to file a lawsuit against the owner—any applicable insurance policy must be disclosed to the plaintiff/victim during discovery.

Another challenge you may face is that it can be harder to prove negligence in a dog bite claim when there is a lack of eyewitnesses. If the dog bite occurred in the owner’s home or yard, it is often their word against yours when it comes to who was responsible. When an attack is severe, someone typically calls 911 or the police to respond, and the 911 call and/or police report can be used as evidence to prove what happened. Even if you don’t need to call 911, make sure to report the incident to animal control officers as soon as possible to document the attack.

Collecting strong evidence and presenting it to the insurance company early is essential to receiving a fair settlement because carriers typically offer quick, lowball payouts for dog bites that don’t fully cover the costs. And if you aren’t represented by an attorney, carriers may try to drag out the process, question your claim, or use other tactics to protect their bottom line and avoid paying you full compensation.

Hiring an Experienced Dog Bite Lawyer Can Help

Our firm has handled dog bite cases for over 29 years, so our attorneys know how to overcome challenges in dealing with homeowners insurance companies so that you receive maximum compensation for your injuries. With our attorneys working for you, the only thing you need to focus on is your recovery.

If you or a loved one has been injured because of a dog owner’s negligence, call The Millar Law Firm today at (770) 400-0000 or contact us online to set up a free consultation with one of our attorneys.

- D. Lo
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