Everyday 1,000 people go to emergency rooms across the country to treat for dog bite injuries, and approximately 15,000 people need to be hospitalized with life-threatening injuries every year. Florida has a 40% dog ownership rate, and many owners have more than one dog. Consequently, it is not uncommon for guests, bystanders, neighbors and relatives to be bitten while visiting the home of a dog owner. When injured, where can the victim turn to? What about insurance exclusions?
Below are five different scenarios – five cases handled by Leesfield Scolaro – which resulted in the victims receiving compensation despite low odds of recovery.
Under Florida law, the owner of a dog that bites a person is strictly liable for the damages suffered – the owner cannot argue that their dog has never bitten anyone before. The only available defense in every case is the victim’s potential comparative negligence that contributed to the incident. (Florida Statute 767.04 -Dog owner’s liability for damages to persons bitten). Consequently, a dog owner is exposed to a potential lawsuit every second of every day.
Dog bite incident covered by insurance – A rarity
The best case scenario for a dog bite victim is to discover that the owner of the animal is covered by an insurance policy. More often than not coverage stems from the owner’s homeowner’s insurance policy (or renter’s insurance policy).
Our 77 year-old female client was walking from her front door to her mailbox with her 20-pound Welsh terrier on a leash. At the same time, a neighbor was walking her large-breed dog directly in front of our client’s house. Suddenly, and without provocation, the large dog charged toward the terrier with such force that the owner lost control of the leash. The dog ran onto the driveway and sank its teeth into the small dog. Our client instinctively pulled her dog’s leash and stepped in front of her dog to create separation. When the dogs separated, the large dog turned its aggression to her and began mauling her arms. The dog ripped open her forearms and right elbow with a series of powerful bites. The dog then snatched her left hand and locked its jaw with its teeth puncturing and breaking through the bones. The dog continued to chew her flesh when another neighbor who witnessed the attack rushed over to stop the carnage.
Thomas Scolaro recently settled a high six-figure dog bite case on behalf of a young woman also attacked on the street:
Our client was walking on the sidewalk when suddenly and without warning or provocation, a large Chesapeake Bay Retriever bolted through the unlocked gate of the owners’ property onto the sidewalk. Without ever slowing down or without giving any warning, the out-of-control animal lunged at the woman, landing on top of her. The dog’s jaws opened repeatedly to rip her neck and face off but our client instinctively and feverishly pushed its face away as best she could and used her right arm and shoulder in a desperate attempt to protect her face and neck from being shredded apart. Her right arm got the worst of the bites as a chunk of her skin was ripped off. The dog sitter appeared from the property in the middle of the attack, yet refused to render aid or failed to even try to control the dog. Ultimately passing motorists who witnessed the attack stopped in the middle of the road and called 911.
In both cases, the victims were “fortunate” that the dog owners were covered by insurance, and settlements were swiftly obtained despite their best futile efforts to blame the victims
Dog bite insurance exclusion, then what?
Unlike the two cases above, in a majority of dog bite cases the dog owner is not insured: The homeowner’s policy specifically excludes coverage for injuries caused by their dog. Standard coverage exclusions read as follows: “Personal Liability And Coverage (Medical Payments to Others) do not apply to bodily injury arising out of the actions, conduct, or behavior of any animal owned or kept by an insured whether or not the bodily injury occurs on an insured location or any other location”
This was the scenario in two recent cases handled by attorneys Thomas Scolaro, Adam Rose, and Carlos Macias. In the first case, a young woman arrived at the property of her patient to provide in-home therapy. As soon as the door opened, a large dog attacked her from behind. At the sound of the loud growling, our client turned around and the dog was already biting her stomach. In a split second, the dog’s jaws ripped through her hand and tore the index finger off. In the second case, our client and the dog owner, who are next door neighbors, were casually talking on the street when the neighbor’s dog jumped out of the neighbor’s parked car, darted toward our client and ferociously mauled her forearm and leg.
Our clients were facing disfiguring injuries, high medical bills, and no insurance from which to receive any compensation. Lawsuits were filed in both cases. Through private investigation and litigation, we established that in both instances the dogs were not owned per se by the homeowners, rather the animals were owned by relatives and they had been “allowed” to stay with the homeowners temporarily. Both cases ultimately settled with the respective insurance carriers despite the coverage dispute.
In a third case, the homeowner’s policy had a valid exclusion and the dog was registered to the named insured. Under these circumstances, the only available path to recovery is to try the case to verdict and garnish the dog owner’s wages. In this case however, Ira H Leesfield discovered short of trial that the homeowner’s financial assets could satisfy a significant verdict against them and ultimately a six-figure lump sum settlement was secured before trial.
I am a dog owner, how do I protect myself and others?
Check your home’s insurance policy to determine whether you are covered in case of a biting incident. If coverage is lacking/excluded, whether you own or rent your property, you can add liability coverage for your dog. Once covered, you can avoid having to compensate a victim with your own personal money, if you have adequate liability limits.
If your dog is of a certain breed, the insurance company has the right to refuse to insure your dog. In that situation, you should get a stand-alone dog liability insurance policy. Many carriers offer this type of coverage which is the perfect substitute to protecting others.
Equally important, make sure you purchase a policy with high enough coverage to avoid being sued despite having insurance. With increasing medical costs, it is not uncommon to see hospital bills higher than $50,000, which means a personal injury claim against you will not settle for less than that amount. If you purchase dog liability insurance with policy limits of $25,000, you have not resolved your potential exposure to a lawsuit. Each dog owner’s situation varies of course. The owner of a Chihuahua will not require as much coverage as the owner of four rottweilers (or any dog classified by insurance carriers as dangerous breeds).
As dog owner, you must exercise good judgement to protect others from injuries and to protect yourself against potential lawsuits. Never forget that purchasing insurance is not a bad investment, it is simply a way to manage risks. And the risk of a dog biting is always present, no matter how much you believe your dog to be harmless. Cesar Millan aka the dog whisperer says it himself: “Any dog has the capacity to bite”.
If you own a dog, do the right thing and seek liability coverage. If you were involved in a dog bite incident and sustained physical injuries, allow us to review your case – even if it was previously turned down by another law firm.