When adopting a pet, you may not be thinking about the potential problems your new companion may cause with your insurance carrier. But it is important to understand that you can be denied homeowner's insurance because of a dog or, more specifically, based upon the type of dog residing in your home. In some cases, insurance companies do not terminate policies based upon the breed, but merely exclude coverage for the animal or limit your liability for dog bite incidents. This means if your new pet bites the neighbor, you may not be covered. This can be very expensive, particularly if your neighbor decides to sue.
Why do Insurance Companies Refuse Coverage for Dog Owners?
According to the Insurance Information Institute, dog bites account for more than one-third of all homeowner's insurance liability claims. Dog bite claims cost more than $489 million in 2012 and the average cost of a dog bite claim has risen by $10,000 in the last ten years, to nearly $30,000. According to the I.I.I., this may be due in part to rising medical costs, as well as the growth in settlement awards given to plaintiffs. So, if all dogs are capable of biting, then why are many insurance companies willing to cover certain dogs but not others?
Companies determine breed restrictions through a variety of resources, which may include dog bite reports, actuarial and claims data, as well as studies by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). There are certain types of dogs that are more involved in attacks, or simply known to be more aggressive than others. These breeds are considered high risk, and may be deemed uninsurable. The list varies by company, but may include breeds such as Akita, Chow Chow, Doberman Pinscher, German Shepherd, Pit Bull, Rottweiler, and Siberian Husky.
The Applicable New Jersey Dog Bite Statute
More than half of all dog bites occur on the dog owner's property. But, whether the bite occurs on private property or in a public place, the owner will nearly always be held responsible. In New Jersey, the liability of an owner of a dog is imposed by the NJ dog bite statute, N.J.S.A. 4:19-16. This law states, “the owner of any dog which shall bite a person while such person is on or in a public place, or lawfully on or in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, shall be liable for such damages as may be suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of such dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness.”
What Steps Can I Take to Keep my Existing Homeowner's Insurance, or Minimize Expenses if I am Denied Coverage?
As a pet owner, you are responsible for your dog's behavior. You can take steps to protect yourself from liability, and to encourage your insurance carrier to cover your new pet.
- Consult a professional, such as a veterinarian or licensed breeder, before selecting your dog. Make sure you are choosing an appropriate breed for both your lifestyle and your neighborhood. Many breeds require space to run, and are not suitable for apartments or small homes.
- Spend time with the dog before bringing the dog home. Make sure to select an animal that does not show signs of aggression.
- Consider enrolling your dog in obedience classes.
- Have your dog spayed or neutered. Dogs are more likely to bite if they are not neutered.
- When walking your dog or spending time with your dog in public places, always keep your dog on a leash.
- If you plan on letting your dog run around your yard without a leash, make sure your yard is fully fenced in. Unless your fence is high enough to keep the entire animal inside the yard (including paws and face) do not leave the dog in the yard unsupervised.
- When having company in your home, consider keeping the dog in a separate area. If you are going to allow the dog near company, supervise the dog carefully. Make sure your visitors know not to disturb the dog when the dog is eating or sleeping. Never disturb a mother who is caring for her pups.
- Avoid playing roughly with your dog, as it encourages aggressive behavior.
How the Dog Bite Law May Change
New Jersey Assembly Bill 488 was introduced on January 16, 2014 and referred to the Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee. The bill prohibits the use of certain underwriting guidelines by insurers pertaining to guide dogs, service dogs or hearing assistance dogs harbored on the insured property. Under this bill, no insurer would be able to decline or terminate coverage, or limit the amount or type of insurance coverage, or impose an increased premium under homeowner's insurance because of a dog, if that dog is a guide dog or service dog living on the homeowner's property, based on breed.
A similar bill was introduced in 2010 that would have prohibited insurance companies from denying homeowner coverage based on the ownership of a specific breed of dog. It would have offered little relief for dog owners, as insurance companies would still have been allowed to exclude liability coverage and vary rates and premiums based upon ownership of certain breeds.
What Can I Do if My Homeowner's insurance Does Not Cover My Pet?
Before adopting your pet, you should always read your homeowner's insurance policy to determine if your pet will be covered. You should contact the company if the language in your policy is vague or unclear, to ensure your policy will cover your pet. If you have already adopted an animal and are facing denial of coverage, you may need to contact other companies who do not have breed specific restrictions.
Have You Been Bit by a Dog in New Jersey?
Our law office represents those who have been victims of dog bites, but we do not provide representation for the owners of the dogs involved. If you have been bitten by someone else's dog and you need help recovering for your injuries, call (732) 709-7757 to speak with an experienced dog bite attorney today. We don't collect legal fees for your representation unless we recover for you.
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