Homeowners insurance covers your home and personal property in the event they’re damaged or destroyed by a covered peril in your policy. Your policy also includes personal liability and medical payments coverage if someone is injured in your home and sues or needs medical care.
If something bad happens and it’s covered in your policy, you file a claim to get reimbursed for damages or legal expenses. If your dog damages your home or personal property, your insurer will probably refuse your claims for repairs or reimbursement. However, if your dog bites a stranger or guest and they sue or need medical care, your legal and medical expenses may be covered by the personal liability and medical payments portions of your policy. One of the most common personal liability claims is due to dog-bites and dog-related injuries.
In fact, dog-related claims account for around a third of personal liability claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Dog claims aren’t just frequent; they’re expensive, too, as the average claim runs north of $30,000. Compare that with the personal liability average, which hovers around $17,000 per claim.
As claim frequency and claim expenses increase by the day, some insurers are writing policies that exclude certain breeds from coverage. They may even outright refuse to cover you based on your dog’s breed. If your dog is excluded, you may be able to buy a separate pet liability insurance policy.
A standard homeowners insurance policy offers coverage for injuries caused by most dogs under the personal liability and medical payments to others provisions of your policy.
If someone was bitten by your dog and they file a lawsuit against you for damages, you file a claim under the personal liability provision of your policy to cover legal expenses related to the incident. Expenses cover everything from legal counsel to the plaintiff’s legal expenses and reward if they win the suit.
Most insurers offer a minimum liability coverage amount of $100,000, but if you own a dog – particularly a dog that weighs over 50 pounds – you may want to consider coverage in the neighborhood of $300,000 or higher. If your dog were to seriously injure or maim a stranger, you’d be on the hook for some costly medical bills, but the legal reward for pain and suffering would be far higher – potentially in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Most insurers set their personal liability coverage limit at $500,000. If you feel that isn’t enough, you can buy a separate personal liability umbrella coverage (more on that later) which provides up to $1 million in legal expenses and can typically be increased in million dollar increments.
If your dog bites and seriously hurts someone and they choose not to sue, he or she may still need some pretty expensive medical treatment. That’s where your medical payments coverage comes in. Coverage limits typically start at $1,000 and max out at $10,000. If it was a particularly gruesome attack, you may be on the hook for far more than what your policy covers, so be sure to purchase enough coverage.
If your dog causes damage to the structure of your home or your personal property, your insurer probably won’t reimburse you for the loss. If your dog bites a stranger and your dog’s breed is excluded from your policy, your insurer won’t reimburse you for the ensuing legal and medical expenses.
If your dog chews through your home’s drywall or breaks through the expensive fence you just installed, your home insurance may not cover the cost for repairs.
If your dog tears your sofa to shreds or damages other types of property within the home, that’s also not likely to be covered by your home insurance policy.
Certain dog breeds are responsible for an overwhelmingly high number of dog bite claims. As a way to minimize what they view as a high-risk and expensive liability issue, some insurers now exclude coverage for certain breeds or refuse to cover your home altogether if you have a certain breed.
The most commonly excluded type of dog are Molossers, which are muscular, thick-chested dogs that include pit bulls, rottweilers, and mastiffs. Whether the designation is fair or not, they’re generally considered the most dangerous breeds by insurers. Many insurers have similar restrictions against the following:
If an insurer refuses you coverage because you have a pit bull, for instance, you’ll need to shop around to find a more lenient insurer. When you find a company that doesn’t turn you down, they may still have conditions in their policies that exclude certain dog breeds, including your pit. That means that if it bites someone, your insurance company can reject your medical payments and liability claims.
As dog breed exclusions become more common (currently Pennsylvania and Michigan are the only states that have laws against denying coverage to owners of a particular breed), so has the need for pet liability insurance, a specialized policy that covers liability for all dog breeds.
Regardless of legal coverage, the onus is on you, the dog owner, to educate yourself about your state’s laws regarding dog liability and prevent your dog from being aggressive in the first place. Insurance companies are becoming increasingly fickle about pets, but some may offer coverage to your dog’s breed if it has gone through a certain level of pet training. Be sure to read the fine print of your policy and check with your insurer to see just what types of dog-inflicted damage are covered, or speak with a licensed representative at Policygenius, who can look over your policy and make coverage recommendations based on your dog’s breed.
Most states implement one of the following three types of liability laws pertaining to dogs:
Dog-bite statute: Owner is legally liable for any type of injury or property damage the dog causes. Although these laws refer to dog bites, they generally include all types of dog-inflicted injuries.
One-bite rule: Owner is legally responsible for an injury caused by the dog if they knew beforehand that the dog was aggressive or prone to causing injury. The burden of proof, however, is on the victim.
Negligence laws: Owner is liable if it’s determined that the injury was caused by recklessness or failure to properly control the animal.
The manner in which your dog acts around you in the comfort of your home more than likely won’t be replicated when an unfamiliar guest comes over or you bring it to the playground where it's exposed to a bunch of running, screaming kids. Your insurer may require everything from obedience training to a certain type yard-fence as a prerequisite for coverage, but those are all measures you should consider regardless of whether your pet is covered or not.
If your insurance company deems your dog a “dangerous breed” and it’s excluded from coverage, you may want to consider buying a pet liability insurance policy, which provides coverage for all breeds in the event your dog injures a person or another dog. Your home insurance company may offer a rider or standalone pet liability policy, but if they don’t, you may be able to buy a policy from a specialized liability insurer.
If your dog is covered (State Farm, for example, covers all breeds), you should still consider supplementing the liability portion of your policy with umbrella coverage. Offered by most major insurers as either an add-on to your policy or standalone policy, umbrella coverage increases your liability limits up to $1 million and protects you against the more expensive lawsuits that may exceed the $500,000 coverage limit in standard policies.
Some umbrella policies may also extend coverage to friend’s personal property, so if your dog rips their $3,000 mink coat to shreds, your liability may be covered as long as the policy covers your dog. Most umbrella policies range anywhere from $150 to $250 annually.
About the author
Pat Howard is an Insurance Editor at Policygenius in New York City, specializing in homeowners insurance. He has been featured on Property Casualty 360, MSN, and more. Pat has a B.A. in journalism from Michigan State University.
Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an insurance agent. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Consult a professional to learn what financial products are right for you.
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