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Do you have a dog? Do you have homeowners insurance? If you answered yes to both questions, listen up. According to the Insurance Information Institute, more than one third of all homeowners claims in 2009 were filed and paid on dog bite cases.

The Institute found that the average payout on a dog bite claim was $24, 840 which is, roughly, a $400 per claim increase over the year before. The number of claims over the past two years is also up, but almost a thousand claims (763, to be exact). The Institute also reports that payouts have increased by about 30% over the past 7 years. A sharp increase in medical costs is one big reason for this increase. And, of course, the insurance industry attributes it to increased jury awards. Of course, "increased jury awards" result from "increased medical cost", don’t they? "Increased jury awards" result, generally, from inflation, as well, don’t they? Gotta love the insurance industry; it will always blame the victim, the jury, the system, and, of course, the trial lawyer.

From the standpoint of prevention and safety, it is clear that, in increasing numbers, homeowners are failing to protect the general public from their dogs. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), almost 5 million United States citizens are bitten by dogs annually; a quarter of these need medical care and almost half of those (450,000) are children. There are, on average, 16 dog bite related deaths, each year.

The law related to dog bite cases is different, depending upon which of the United States you live (or are bitten) in. However, you can count on the fact that there are three basic types of liability laws that make dog owners responsible for damages when their dogs bite someone.

Strict Liability Dog-bite statutes: These state statutes hold the dog owner automatically responsible for any injury, including damage to property, that their dog causes, whether or not there was any provocation.

Some States have what is known as a "One-bite" rule: With "one bite", the owner is only liable for all bites occurring after the first one; the theory is that once the dog has bitten someone, the owner is now on notice that he/she might do it again. This may also be referred to as a ‘vicious propensity’. The "strict liability" standard is far more prevalent than the "one bite" standard and many States that once had "one bite are statutorily amending to the strict liability approach.

Negligence Standard: Like other types of negligence cases, a dog owner is only liable is he was negligent or careless in controlling the dog and allowing him/her to bite someone. And, of course, whether you are legally on the premises, whether you have been invited for business or personal reasons; your legal status on the property is often important in determining liability.

Your Homeowners (or renters) insurance policy will, almost always, cover dog bite incidents. Liability coverage will vary; it depends on how much you are willing to pay for. It is my strong advice, if you own a dog, to buy as much coverage as your insurer will sell you. Why? Because you will be personally liable for any damages awarded above your insurance limits. Most policies have "med-pay" provisions which will cover the medical bills of your visiting friends, relatives, or neighbors who are bitten and don’t wish to sue you. These med pay provisions have small limits and possible deductibles, so don’t count on them to cover major medical treatment and/or severe scarring.

Most insurance company will insure your home, with a pet, and many carriers will issue policies which say that dog bites are covered; be forewarned, however; they will also place deceptive and restrictive exclusionary language in the policy. Some will exclude certain breeds, some will exclude dogs that have already bitten someone, some will charge higher premiums, some will require obedience training (absent which, there is no coverage). Be very careful and read those provisions relating to your pet, from cover to cover. Talk to your agent and make sure you get the most bang for your buck.

How much insurance you need depends, to a large degree, on your financial condition and/or social standing. I am certainly not someone who would, typically, give a defendant (the person being sued) advice, but the greater your assets, the more insurance you should buy. If a person is mauled by your dog and suffers severe facial scarring, or is one of the unlucky 16 per year who are killed by dogs, liability awards could be six or even seven figures. I would opt for paying additional premiums for coverage rather than take the risk of a six or seven figure lawsuit result. If you are of significant means, you may even wish to consider an excess, or umbrella, liability policy.

Prevention is the best protection against potential liability. Here are my top ten ways to prevent a dog bite from happening in the first instance:

1. Before you purchase a dog, consult with a breeder or a veterinarian and ask which breeds are best for you. Do you have children? Do you live in the city or the country? Is the area sparsely or densely populated? What environment is this breed best suited for?

2. Before you purchase (or adopt) a pet, spend time with him/her. Make sure the dog is a good fit for your surroundings.

3. Do not leave young children, especially infants or toddlers, alone, for any period of time, with your pet.

4. Have your dog spayed or neutered. According to the CDC, non-neutered dogs are three times more likely to bite (don’t ask me why).

5. Gradually expose you pet to people and other animals so that it becomes used to having others around. The dog must learn how to behave around other animals and other people.

6. Don’t disturb your dog while he/she is eating or sleeping. Make sure that your kids and your kids’ friends receive and understand this message loud and clear.

7. We are not always bitten by a family or neighbor pet. Never approach or try to pet a strange or stray dog. If any dog makes threatening gestures or even appears to be threatening, avoid eye contact with the animal.

8. Send you dog for obedience training, especially if you see him/her developing what appears to be aggressive tendencies.

9. When playing with your dog, do not choose games that might encourage aggressiveness. According to the CDC, "go fetch" is preferred over "tug-of-war". Don’t jostle or "fight" with your dog.

10. Keep your dog restrained (collar and leash) when you exercise him/her. Otherwise, keep you pet on your own property with a fence, leash or electric fence. Do not let your pet roam free around the neighborhood. "He always comes home" is not a good excuse to put your pet and/or your friends and neighbors in danger.

I have had and loved dogs for most of my childhood and adult life. All of them have been wonderful, loyal companions and fun for the whole family. Some of you may recall my InjuryBoard tribute to Bogie, our beloved black lab mix, who passed away, recently. Train a dog properly; select the right dog for your environment, nurture and keep you pet healthy and happy, and he/she will become an integral part of your family, as Bogie was to ours. The environment you create for them and for visitors and the training you provide will go a long way to determining whether they will become that important family member or a serious liability claim waiting to happen. It is up to you to find the proper balance.

Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by plaintiffs involved in pending, personal injury litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.

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