Originally created 09/17/02

Insurance companies get strict on dog owners



David Edmiston of Grovetown considers his dogs part of the family.

So after his Dalmatian, Sparky, bit two neighbors, getting rid of him never crossed Mr. Edmiston's mind. Even after his insurance company canceled his homeowner's policy.

That was 10 years ago. Some insurance companies are even more cautious today.

The Insurance Information Institute estimates that about 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs each year, resulting in around 800,000 injuries. Dog bites now account for one third of all homeowners' liability claims, costing about $310 million.

Mr. Edmiston's dog didn't do much damage to the two neighborhood boys who had come into his yard. Their doctor bill totaled $85. But he still had to get another insurance company - and it did not include dog-bite liability.

It's not uncommon for an insurance company to exclude a dog from coverage after it bites - even if it's an isolated incident.

Farmers Insurance Group has a no-tolerance policy for bites. Once there is a claim, the pet is specifically omitted from coverage. They also don't take new business from people who have had dog-bite claims in the past three years, even if the family no longer owns the pet.

Ebony Lincoln, regional public affairs specialist for State Farm Insurance, said after a bite incident, retention of a policy is decided on a case-by-case basis.

"Once the claim is processed, there will be a complete and thorough investigation of what happened and coverage could or could not apply. It just depends on the result of that investigation," Ms. Lincoln said.

Other companies, such as Mercury Casualty Co., offer a 10 percent discount to homeowners who do not own a dog or will take the dog off their policy.

Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. has taken a much more proactive stance. For more than five years, Nationwide has had a list of breeds that automatically make homeowners ineligible for coverage. The list is based on breed studies and attack statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and includes Rottweilers, Dobermans, pit bulls, Presa Canarios, chows and wolf hybrids.

"This information reveals that these breeds demonstrate an increase in risk of injury or death to people and other animals that greatly exceeds that of most dogs," the policy reads. "... Nationwide appreciates that an individual dog may not be representative of an entire breed. However, we find it necessary to apply our standards consistently as it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to determine the true disposition of any individual dog."

Michelle and Ryan Oltman bought Caesar, a Doberman pinscher puppy, about 9 months ago. Mrs. Oltman said they spent a lot of time researching the breed and the proper way to train and socialize their dog.

They wanted a large breed, a security dog and one that would fit into their family plans, which include children.

"Our thinking is that if there is a mean dog, then there's a mean owner," Mrs. Oltman said. "I never would have thought about calling the insurance company about our dog," she said.

The Oltmans have insurance through USAA, a brokerage for members of the military. The company has no restrictions for dogs, but will exclude Caesar if he ever bites.

So what are dog owners to do if they find their pup excluded from an insurance policy?

Wayne Budd, insurance agent at Budd Insurance Agency in Martinez, said if you don't have dog-bite liability - get it.

"The individual is still liable. If they're not covered then they are putting their assets at risk," he said.

The Lester Kalmanson Agency in Maitland, Fla., specializes in unusual or difficult insurance policies, including dog liability for blacklisted breeds or dogs with a bite history.

Bobbi Leibowitz, an agent at Kalmanson, said the canine-liability business is growing and coming from all over the country.

"Basically, the majority of the people come to us when there is a problem, such as a bite incident or when a home owner policy cancels due to a dog bite. Because there's really no other place for people to go to," she said.

Don't expect canine liability to come easy - or cheap.

"There are very, very strict guidelines for these policies," Ms. Leibowitz said. "We do inspections of every property, especially if its a kennel with many dogs."

The dog must be muzzled, in its own area and away from people. There must be a concrete slab, steel cage, locks and signs. The dog must be on a leash and muzzled when walked.

"We're making that individual with that canine responsible for his pet.

Especially, when there is a bite involved," Ms. Leibowitz said.

A basic policy, with no bite claim, is about $800 a year. That includes a $5,000 deductible and coverage for up to $100,000.

Of course, if there is a claim, the price is much higher and the rules are stricter.

GET THE FACTS

If you own a dog, here are some questions to ask your insurance company:

  • Does your policy include dog bites?
  • Does it exclude any breed of dog?
  • Is there a limit on the number of times the policy will pay for the losses of a dog-bite victim?
  • Is there a limit on the amount of money the company will pay?
  • Who is covered?
  • Are any discounts (such as for obedience training) available?
  • Reach Lisa M. Lohr at (706) 823-3332 or lisalohr@augustachronicle.com.