Insurance coverage for dog bites?

You were attacked and bitten by a dog, either while at someone’s home or off the dog owner’s property. Your injuries are serious and the dog owner tells you not to worry because their homeowner’s insurance will cover claim. Can you rest easy? Are all your bills and lost wages going to be taken care of? What about all your pain and suffering, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life? Are you going to be compensated for this?

The answers to these questions depend on a number of different factors.

As a starting point, Florida law holds the owner of the dog responsible for any injuries caused by the dog. It is not necessary to prove negligence on the part of the dog owner. The dog owner is “strictly liable” for the acts of his or her dog, as long as the injury victim did not provoke the dog. However, there is a big difference between the law allowing you to bring a claim and ultimately get a judgment against someone and actually collecting on that judgment. As a lawyer, sometimes the easy part of a dog bite case is getting a judgment against the dog owner and the difficult part of the case is collecting on that judgment. If the dog owner has a homeowner’s insurance policy, there may be coverage for your claim under the homeowner’s insurance policy.

For many years, Florida homeowner’s insurance companies covered injuries caused by an insured’s dog under the liability provisions of the homeowner’s insurance policy. However, this changed about 10 to 15 years ago, when insurance companies began to put exclusions in policies for any injuries caused by a homeowner’s dog. The wording of the exclusions vary from company to company, but the exclusions are usually very broad, allowing the insurance company to deny coverage not only for dog bites, but for any injury caused by an animal owned by the insured.

A number of years ago I represented a man who was riding a bicycle in his neighborhood when one of his neighbor’s dogs charged at him. He took evasive action to try to get away from the dog, but was thrown from his bike, causing him to break his hip. The dog owner’s insurance company relied on an animal exclusion to try to get out of providing coverage for the accident. In the course of my investigation I learned that the dog was able to escape from the neighbor’s property because the latch on a backyard gate was broken. I took the position that the animal exclusion did not apply because the proximate cause of the injury was the neighbor’s failure to maintain their property-latch on the gate-thus allowing the dog to escape. Generally speaking, when a homeowner fails to maintain their property in good repair and someone is injured as a result, the homeowner is responsible. The insurance company continued to insist that the dog was the proximate cause of the accident and coverage under the policy was unavailable due to the animal exclusion. The homeowner’s insurance company eventually settled the case, so the issue of what was the proximate cause of the accident and whether the animal exclusion applied was never decided by the court. However, the client ended up with a reasonable settlement, which he was happy with given that the insurer refused to pay him anything before he retained me.

If you have been the victim of a dog attack, dog bite or any other injury caused by an animal, it is important that you speak with an experienced attorney early on so that a proper investigation can be made. Please feel free to call me at (561) 737-3133 to discuss your claim in more detail.