Apr 09, 2010

Dog Bites and Homeowners' Insurance

This month's This Old House magazine contains a scary-sounding statistic: that dog bites account for one-third of all homeowners' liability insurance claims.

Taken at muzzle value, that sounds like Fido is more dangerous than we thought. But what does this statistic really mean?

First, notice that it refers only to homeowners' LIABILITY claims, in other words, claims for injuries and medical expenses when someone who visits your home is injured. That's a small part of what your homeowners' insurance policy covers.

Most homeowners' coverage, and most claims, relate to the hazard portion of your policy, such as damages to your house and property from wind, fire, storms, vandalism, theft, and so forth.

Second, I'm no statistician, but it seems like we'd have a fuller picture if we could get some breakdown of liability-claims sources beyond "dogs" and "non-dogs." Unfortunately, no such breakdown exists. I called the Insurance Information Institute, whence this stat apparently originates, and it explained that it hasn't separately studied any category of liability other than dog bites -- though noting that liability claims arise from a wide mix of causes, such as swimming pool drowning, slip and falls, and so forth.

So if we wanted to focus on the biggest problem, we might need a headline saying "Human carelessness accounts for two thirds of homeowners' liability insurance claims!" But that wouldn't have been as eye-catching.

Back to the dogs for a moment, however. I don't want to discount the fact that some inflict serious injuries on largely innocent victims. It's a good reminder to choose and train a dog well before making it part of your family, and to be vigilant about your dog's interactions with visitors to your home.

In particular, don't bring a dog into the home expecting it to behave viciously toward intruders and not toward anyone else -- dogs don't usually know the difference. And finally, check with your homeowners' insurance company about its dog policy. Some insurance carriers won't cover you if you've got a certain breed of dog that's got a bad rap, or one with a personal history of aggressive behavior. The last thing you want is for a visitor to your home to sue you for a dog bite, only to discover that you're not insured for this -- especially given that the average claim is nearly $25,000.