Dog Owners Are Liable When Their Pets Bite

There were over 77 million domestic dogs residing in homes across the United States between 2015 and 2016. This was a finding in a survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are over 4.5 million dog bites reported each year. Of that amount, almost 900,000 require medical care, and about 50 percent of those cases involve children. While some insurers will cover most dogs, some will not insure a long list of specific breeds. Dobermans and pit bulls are on many of the exclusion lists. Some insurers do not discriminate by breed and instead determine a dog's status by individual evaluation.

Dog Owners Are Typically Liable For Bites

If their pets bite guests or people who come on their property, owners are almost always liable for the damages. A dog does not have to be on a list of vicious breeds to make an owner liable in some cases. If an owner knew of a dog's tendency to bite and it can be proven through records of similar incidents, the owner is liable. In some other cases, the owner is not liable if the dog did not have a known propensity to bite and was not considered a vicious breed. For example, a mellow cocker spaniel biting a person for the first time may not result in responsibility by the owner. However, a pit bull biting a person for the first time would likely result in the owner being held liable.

In some states, insurers are not allowed to deny coverage to people with certain breeds of dogs, and they are not allowed to cancel policies if people obtain questionable breeds. However, dog owners are required to buy additional liability insurance in some states if they own certain breeds of dogs. There are three types of laws that put liability on dog owners. They include the following:

  • A bite statute places automatic liability on the owner for any injuries.
  • A one-bite rule places liability on the owner only if he or she knew of the dog's propensity to bite.
  • Negligence laws place liability on an owner if the owner is careless in controlling the animal.


Impact Of Dog Bites

In 2015, dog bite claims made up almost 35 percent of all liability claims among homeowners. The total amount paid by insurers in claims was over $570 million. Although the number of bite claims decreased by more than 7 percent in 2015, the average claim cost increased by 16 percent. The average claim cost in the United States in 2015 for claims of this type was over $37,000. California led the nation in the highest number of claims at almost 1,700 for the year. Claim costs have risen steadily over the past few years, which is mostly due to the rising costs of medical care and the larger settlement awards for lawsuits.

Not all claim amounts were attributable only to dog bites. In addition to biting people, dogs also knocked down children and elderly individuals, which resulted in additional injuries. They also knocked cyclists off of their bikes and caused damage to both the cyclists and their bikes. Other factors also increased the severity of some incidents and led to higher claim amounts. 

Dog owners can help reduce the number of claims made by being responsible. Keep pets in crates or in a locked room when guests visit or when service workers come to the house. For outdoor pets, provide sturdy fencing and a locked gate. Always display signs that alert people of the dog's presence. If there is no fence around the yard, keep the dog on a leash when taking it outdoors. To be safe, do not let strangers pet the dog. One incident can be costly and may even result in the dog being put to sleep in some places. To learn more about preventing costly dog bites, discuss concerns with an agent.


June 13, 2017
by Brian cook
Managing Partner