Man’s Best Liability: A Brief Overview of Homeowner’s Insurance and Dog Bites*

August 2023 • Source: Michael "Maz" Mazurczak, Melick & Porter, LLP

The issue of insurance coverage in the event of a dog bite is becoming a more and more common problem as time goes by. The American Veterinary Medical Association has found that there are nearly 85 million dogs living in US households and according to the Insurance Information Institute dog bites make up approximately one-third of homeowners insurance claims and these claims have increased by ninety percent over the last fifteen years with a 2.2 percent jump from 2020 to 2021 alone. This makes sense considering the 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States. And these injuries can carry hefty financial consequences, as of 2021 the average award for dog bite cases (taking into consideration both settlements and trial verdicts) was $49,025.

Massachusetts has strict liability for dog bites, regardless of the breed of dog and whether or not the dog has a history of aggression. This means a plaintiff does not have to prove the person responsible for the dog was negligent in order to recover damages. Taking measures such as a leash, harness, or fence are also not enough to avoid liability. It is also key to note that the law applies to the person responsible for the dog. Case law is clear that if someone is housing and caring for another’s dog they can still be found liable a bite that happens while the dog is in their care. The only exception to this strict liability is if the plaintiff provoked the dog, was trespassing on the dog owner’s property, or was threatening the owner or another individual. Damages have even been awarded in cases where there wasn’t serious physical injury, PTSD and mental anguish suffered by the plaintiff following a dog attack can be enough.

Homeowners insurance will provide coverage for dog bites that occur in the home provided that the policyholder informed them in advance of each dog being adopted. If the insurance was not previously aware of the dog or the attack occurs off the owner’s property insurance may deny coverage. While it is illegal for local laws to prohibit owning certain dog breeds, insurance companies can deny coverage based on a dog’s breed and often do. The most commonly denied dogs are pitbulls, presa canarios, rottweilers, german shepherds, and akitas. Dogs will a history of aggressive behavior will also almost always be denied. Some insurance companies won’t cancel the policy altogether but will require the dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites, acknowledging that their homeowner’s insurance is not extending coverahe to the dog. Separate insurance that specifically provides coverage for dog attack and property damage caused by a dog can also be purchased but often homeowner’s insurance will still cancel a policy if the policyholder adopts what their guidelines deem a dangerous dog.

*Melick & Porter, LLP loves dogs and would never want to discourage anyone from adopting a furry friend. This is simply a guide to know how to best protect yourself and your pup.