If the legally liable defendant is insured
A dog bite victim in the USA usually can recover full compensation from the following types of insurance, assuming that the person or business covered by the insurance is legally liable for the accident:
- Homeowners insurance of the dog owner, harborer or keeper.
- Renters insurance of the dog owner, harborer or keeper.
- Landlords insurance of the property owner.
- Pet sitters insurance.
- Daycare operators insurance.
- Commercial insurance (covering stores, gas stations, etc.)
- Umbrella insurance (providing additional money over and above one of the other types of insurance mentioned here).
The first issue when dealing with insurance is determining whether the applicable policy covers the accident. Homeowners and renters insurance policies may have one or more "loopholes" that negate coverage for a dog attack:
- An animal exclusion that negates coverage for any accident involving an animal.
- A breed exclusion that negates coverage for the breed of dog involved in the accident.
- The home business exclusion which negates coverage if the accident happened in connection with a business being conducted by the dog owners (for example, where a child was bit at a home-based daycare center which did not have daycare insurance).
- The exclusion for residents of the covered home or apartment.
If an exclusion seems to apply, the dog bite victim absolutely must retain an attorney who has substantial experience in dog attack cases because the courts generally do not favor exclusions and a well-versed lawyer might find a legal ground for getting around one.
The next issue when dealing with insurance is the amount of compensation that will be available for the dog bite victim. The amount of compensation an insurance company might have to pay can be lower than the amount of damages that the victim sustained. In the first place, it is limited by how much insurance the liable party bought. Typical limits are $25,000 to $50,000 for a mobile home, and $100,000 to $300,000 for an apartment or single family dwelling. If a defendant has an "umbrella" or "excess" policy, the limit is $1 million or more. The typical limit for a commercial establishment is $1 million. It also is limited by:
- Defenses such as comparative negligence
- Tort reform laws that put an arbitrary ceiling on the amount of noneconomic losses that can be recovered.
- Apportionment laws that prevent an injured person from recovering 100% of his losses from a defedant who is less than 100% liable, such as when two defendants are liable.
- Governmental tort laws that put an arbitrary ceiling on the amount of losses that can be recovered from a government agency or employee.
The good news is that homeowners insurance and renters insurance do not require dog owners to pay deductibles or co-payments. Dog owners who have sufficient limits therefore don't have to pay even a penny out of their own pockets (unless punitive damages are awarded against them). This is good news in 75% of dog bite cases because in that percentage of dog attacks the dog owner is either a friend, neighbor or family member of the victim, who might not want to feel like he is hurting the dog owner by making the claim.
If the legally liable defendant is uninsured or under-insured
If the liable person or business does not have insurance or has insufficient insurance (i.e., is "under-insured"), the dog bite victim may still have ways to recover compensation:
- An uninsured or under-insured defendant can be forced to make payments from his personal funds. This usually requires filing a lawsuit.
- The victim can be reimbursed for economic losses (medical costs, lost income and damage to property) through criminal restitution. The defendant must be convicted of a crime related to the dog attack, and the sentence must include restitution to the victim.
- The insurance of the owner of the property will pay medical expenses only, even if the property owner is not liable for the accident, but only up to a certain amount, and only the medical treatment costs that are incurred within a certain period of time. Typical limits are $1,000 and one year. Coverage is provided by virtue of the "medical payments section" of the insurance policy that covers the premises, and liability is not a prerequisite for coverage.
The victim should consult a lawyer whenever a defendant appears to be uninsured or under-insured. This can happen because:
- The defendant did not purchase insurance or it expired.
- There is a loophole in the defendant's insurance policy.
- The defendant is pretending to not be insured.
One of the best reasons to retain an experienced dog bite lawyer is to deal with insurance problems. After handling a great many dog bite cases, an attorney will know how to find insurance where it seems like none exists. For example, Attorney Kenneth Phillips was representing a little girl who was mauled by pit bulls and had $1 million in medical costs and other damages. The dog owners were homeless people who were living in a rented, broken-down house. Phillips connected the homeless people to the manager of the premises and was able to show that the manager was aware that the pit bulls were vicious. This enabled Phillips to make a claim against the manager's employer which was a well-insured family trust which owned a lot of property and had a lot of insurance coverage.
If nobody is legally liable but the premises are insured
Full compensation is not possible because nobody is legally liable. However, the victim can be reimbursed for medical costs from the "medical payments section" of the insurance policy that covers the premises. The usual limit is $1,000 but some policies provide more. The treatment costs must be incurred and presented to the insurance company within a limited period of time, often as short as one year after the accident.