Pets and Liability Issues—What to Know

by Nancy

Pets and Liability Issues—What to Know

Pets can be wonderful companions. But sometimes, events occur that make Fluffy or Fido a potential pet liability. Maybe Fido nipped the unfamiliar newspaper person or Fluffy got underfoot and caused a visitor to trip and fall. Sometimes the problem doesn’t involve an individual but a place: Fido scratched your apartment’s wall beyond repair or Fluffy left a “present” on the carpet while staying at the pet-sitter’s home.

No matter what transpired, at a minimum, there’s going to be a financial “bite” coming out of your wallet and, worst-case scenario, there could be a lawsuit coming your way.

Here’s what to know about liability issues associated with pets.

If your pet injures someone, you’re liable.

According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), dog owners are liable for any injuries their pets cause in the following instances:

  • If the owner knew the dog had a tendency to cause that kind of injury;
  • If a state statute makes the owner liable, whether or not the owner knew the dog had a tendency to cause that kind of injury;
  • If the injury was caused by unreasonable carelessness on the part of the owner.

The dog-bite statute makes the owner automatically liable for any injury or property damage the dog causes, while the “one-bite” rule exempts the owner for the first time a dog bites. An owner can be held negligent if the injury occurred because the owner was careless in controlling the dog.

What if it’s a trespasser that’s bitten? Cover Financial says that in most states, owners are not held liable if trespassers are injured by a dog. But check with your state and community for any specific laws and regulations. Also, it all depends on whether the person is truly a trespasser under the legal definition of the term.

According to AllLaw.com, a trespasser “is someone who unlawfully enters the property or land of another. However, be aware that simply entering the property without the landowner’s permission does not automatically make someone a trespasser. In some situations, the alleged trespasser may have implied permission to enter the property. For example, a door-to-door salesman may have implied permission to enter your property if you do not have a locked gate or a “no soliciting” sign.”

In any case, advises Cover Financial, if a pet-caused injury does occur, document everything in writing and with photos to help with the claims process. Also, have the injured person seek medical attention immediately even for minor scrapes or bruises as part of the documentation process and just in case the small scratch turns into an infected area.

WHN Expert TIP – Watch the Video: Facing a lawsuit because your pet injured someone? Watch the Federation of Insured Dog Owners, Inc.’s video on YouTube: What to expect during a dog bite lawsuit.

Notify your insurance company that you have a pet.

Fido is such a sweet little puppy. Do you have to let your insurance company know he’s become a member of the family? After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

Well, if you don’t tell your insurance company you have a pet or misrepresented the breed type (for dogs), the liability coverage you were counting on if you get sued because your pet injured someone could be non-existent, says The Truth About Insurance. Your insurance application is a contract, and if the contract includes a question about pet ownership and you didn’t tell the truth, that would be a misrepresentation that could void your coverage.

If you file the claim, your insurance company will review your policy and application as part of the process. If you lied, the company could not only refuse to pay the claim but also cancel your policy, according to The Truth About Insurance. That not only puts you on the hook for the claims and/or lawsuit but you’ll also have to find another company to insure your home.

The same rule about notifying your insurance provider applies to renters insurance, says ValuePenguin. Make certain the breed you have (or were planning on getting) is covered by your insurer. When it comes to pets and insurance coverage, honesty is definitely the best policy!

What if your pet’s breed is excluded from coverage? Other options are a dog liability insurance policy or an excess policy that provides a higher coverage limit for damages covered under your homeowners policy, says Insurance.com. If you have an exotic pet, there are companies that offer exotic pet insurance.

WHN Expert TIP – Check the Coverage. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) recommends homeowners check with their insurance carrier to make sure their animal is not excluded as a dangerous breed. If so, you may need to purchase additional or specific liability coverage.

Some states or communities have breed-specific laws.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), breed-specific laws that ban or restrict ownership of dog breeds believed to be responsible for the most serious attacks on people are in place in more than 900 cities. The U.S. Army, Air Force and Marines ban pit bull–type dogs and certain breeds from privatized housing domestically and abroad. Check BSL Census’s Breed Specific Legislation Map to see if your state or community has current legislation.

WHN Expert Tip – Buy an Umbrella: Even if your policy covers your pet, you might want to think about purchasing an umbrella policy for extra coverage, says III. But verify that it includes pet-caused injuries like dog bites.

While most information uses dog bites as examples, pet owners can also be held liable if the injury was caused by a cat, reptile or other species. But some species such as exotic animals (reptiles, monkeys and wolves, for instance) are generally excluded from liability coverage, says ValuePenguin. (Ask your insurance provider for its Exotic Pet Species Index.) Check with your insurance company if you’re covered if your pet goldfish takes a nip out of a visitor! Not covered? Consider a personal umbrella policy.

Not all damage is covered.

Did Fido “water” an expensive piece of artwork? If the item your pet damaged belongs to you or your pet damages your home or another structure on your property, you can’t submit a claim under your homeowners insurance’s personal property coverage, said Allstate. The coverage only comes into play if Fluffy or Fido damaged someone else’s property.

However, if you’ve spent a chunk on that fancy collar or pet carrier, or had to buy some expensive equipment for Fluffy or Fido, make sure it’s listed on the personal property section of your homeowners or renter policy and save the receipts for back-up, says III. That way it will be covered.


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Photo Credit: Unsplash

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