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Pets 101

How To Protect Yourself Against Liability In Case A Dog Or Other Pet Hurts Someone

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If your dog or other pet causes injury or death, you may be liable both for damages (civilly) and criminally. Fido may seem sweet, but at the wrong moment, with the wrong person, damages could be very large.

Many states have passed laws with harsh penalties for owners of dogs that cause serious injuries or death.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, in approximately one-third of states, owners are liable for their dog's behavior even if there has been no warning. In the rest of the states, you are only liable if you knew or should have known that the dog was inclined to bite. As a general matter, this means that you are only liable if the dog already bit someone. In those states, you get the first bite for free.

Even in the first-bite-free states, you may be liable if you are engaged in outrageous or reckless behavior, or are negiligent in controlling the dog, or are in violation of a local animal-control law.

To learn about the animal control laws in your area, search in your favorite search engine on the name of your city or town and the words "municipal code." Then repeat the process with the name of your county and the word "ordinance". Alternatively, discuss this issue with your insurance broker or attorney to learn about the law in your state.

If you have a homeowners (or renters) insurance policy:

  • Check to see if you are covered for damages caused by your pet. 
    • Read the "exclusions" information in the "Coverage" section to make sure that it does not mention dogs or other animals. 
    • Also read any "endorsements" mailed to you by the insurance company. Endorsements amend the policy and could exclude dog-bite coverage. (If you haven't kept all endorsements mailed to you, call the insurance company and ask for a copy of all endorsements.)  
    • Read the "Declarations" section of the policy to make sure that there is not a lower limit on liability for a dog-bite than for the rest of the coverage. If the limits are not sufficient, consider purchasing an "umbrella" liability policy which increases the limit.
  • If your homeowners insurance policy doesn't cover pets, ask your insurance broker if an umbrella policy is available which will cover pets. If not, it is advisable to purchase a canine-liability policy that covers this risk. 

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