Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

Your dog's bite could bankrupt you

If your pet attacks someone, you could owe tens of thousands of dollars -- or more -- and your insurer might not pay up. You could even land in jail.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

The Santa Rosa, Calif., case was horrifying: A 90-pound American bulldog attacked a woman walking her own dog to a school bus stop to meet her children, biting off her nose.

The bulldog's owner insisted the animal had never bitten anyone or even behaved aggressively the previous times it had escaped from her yard. That didn't do much to sway the judge.

The owner was sentenced to four months in jail and 100 hours of community service.

The victim, who endured several surgeries to rebuild her face, was later awarded $900,000 in a civil settlement. Her husband and children were awarded $33,000 each, for a total settlement of $1 million -- the upper limit of the dog owner's insurance policy.

Clearly, this was a severe case, both in the intensity of the attack and in the consequences for everyone concerned -- including the bulldog, which was euthanized.

Understand your risks

But all dog owners need to understand their potential liability should their animal bite, maul or, heaven forbid, kill someone. A single bite could cost you tens of thousands of dollars -- a lawsuit hundreds of thousands -- and your insurance coverage might not apply. If the attack is especially serious, you could even go to jail.

Consider:

  • Dog bites make up one-third of all homeowner insurance liability claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute, and cost insurers $356 million in 2007.

  • The average cost of a dog-bite claim was $24,511 in 2007, the institute found. That's 11.5% more than the year before and 28% more than in 2003.

  • More than 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs annually, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly a million of them need medical attention. Some die. In 2007, 32 people in the U.S. were killed by dogs, according to Los Angeles attorney Kenneth Phillips, who specializes in dog-bite cases.

A few fatal attacks receive national attention, such as the case of a San Francisco woman killed outside her apartment door in 2001 by her neighbors' two Presa Canarios. The married attorneys who owned the dogs were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and the wife was additionally convicted of second-degree murder.

"Because of the death of Diane Whipple, there was a raising of consciousness" about the problem of vicious dogs, Phillips said. "That case was so notorious. . . . Here are two people (the dog owners) who supposedly have brains in their heads, and they were so stupid when it came to those dogs."

Prison sentences aren't the only sign that tolerance for biting dogs is waning. Some insurers have reacted to the rising cost of dog-bite claims by refusing to cover certain breeds. The ones most often blacklisted include:

  • Pit bulls.

  • Dobermans.

  • Rottweilers.

  • Akitas.

  • Chows.

  • Wolf hybrids.

Video on MSN Money

Dog © moodboard/Corbis
Insurer drops dog owner
An insurance company cancels a policy after learning that the homeowner has a bull mastiff.
Other insurers provide coverage for all breeds, but most change the rules once a dog has bitten someone. Then the companies might demand a higher premium or require the owner to sign a waiver that excludes the dog from coverage, leaving the owner uncovered in case of a dog-bite claim or lawsuit.

Legal standards for owner liability also vary. Some states have "one bite" laws that limit liability for people whose animals bite someone for the first time. Most hold owners responsible for any damage their animals do, whether or not there was a history of attacks or aggression.

And criminal charges, although relatively rare, can be filed if an attack was particularly severe and the owner is judged to have been unreasonably careless or negligent.

Continued: When risk factor increases

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