One of the three most important elements of a successful dog bite claim is insurance coverage. (The other two elements are discussed in How to Know if You Have a Good Case.) At least one liable party has to have insurance with limits that are high enough to pay the victim's damages and losses. The first step for finding insurance is send the dog owners and other liable parties a polite letter asking them for the name of their insurance company (homeowners insurance, renters insurance, canine liability insurance or other types such as daycare insurance or general liability insurance) and the policy number. In some states (see below), the law requires that a person involved in an accident disclose this information, but in most states there is no requirement of disclosure.
If the first letter does not work, an attorney can send a second letter which threatens a lawsuit. The letter also might remind the liable parties that their insurance policy requires them to report a claim to the insurance company. If they ignore the first letter and they do not report the claim, they actually are in breach of their duty to their insurance company. The reason why insurance companies want to know about claims is so that they can investigate the claims and settle them without a lawsuit.
What can be done, however, if a defendant does not reply, or denies having insurance coverage?
For an attorney, the surest step is to file an unlimited lawsuit, serve the defendants with process and see what the response will be. If the defendants were insured for the incident, they will turn the matter over to their insurance company. One then can learn the details about the insurance in several different ways. In some states, it is sufficient to ask the insurance company what the details are. For example:
- Virginia Code Section 8.01-417, provides in part: "If the total of all such medical bills and wage losses equals or exceeds $12,500, the insurer shall respond in writing within 30 days of receipt of the request and shall disclose the limits of liability at the time of the accident of all such policies, regardless of whether the insurer contests the applicability of the policy to the injured person's claim."
- Florida Statutes 627.4137 applies to the insurance company and to the insured and his insurance agent:
"Each insurer which does or may provide liability insurance coverage to pay all or a portion of any claim which might be made shall provide, within 30 days of the written request of the claimant, a statement, under oath, of a corporate officer or the insurer’s claims manager or superintendent setting forth the following information with regard to each known policy of insurance, including excess or umbrella insurance:
(a) The name of the insurer.
(b) The name of each insured.
(c) The limits of the liability coverage.
(d) A statement of any policy or coverage defense which such insurer reasonably believes is available to such insurer at the time of filing such statement.
(e) A copy of the policy.
"In addition, the insured, or her or his insurance agent, upon written request of the claimant or the claimant’s attorney, shall disclose the name and coverage of each known insurer to the claimant and shall forward such request for information as required by this subsection to all affected insurers. The insurer shall then supply the information required in this subsection to the claimant within 30 days of receipt of such request.
(2) The statement required by subsection (1) shall be amended immediately upon discovery of facts calling for an amendment to such statement.
(3) Any request made to a self-insured corporation pursuant to this section shall be sent by certified mail to the registered agent of the disclosing entity."
- Georgia, O.C.G.A. § 33-3-28 provides: "Every insurer providing liability or casualty insurance coverage in this state and which is or may be liable to pay all or a part of any claim shall provide, within 60 days of receiving a written request from the claimant, a statement, under oath, of a corporate officer or the insurer's claims manager stating with regard to each known policy of insurance issued by it, including excess or umbrella insurance, the name of the insurer, the name of each insured, and the limits of coverage. Such insurer may provide a copy of the declaration page of each such policy in lieu of providing such information."
- Maine Revised Statutes, Title 24-A, section 2164-E: "Upon written request by a claimant or the claimant's attorney, an insurer doing business in this State shall provide the claimant or the claimant's attorney with the liability coverage limits of that insurer's insured. The insurer must provide the liability coverage limits within 60 days of receipt of the written request."
- Massachusetts General Laws section 112C: "Any insurer doing business in the commonwealth shall reveal to an injured party making claim against an insured, the amount of the limits of said insured's liability coverage, upon receiving a request in writing for such information from the injured party or his attorney. A reply shall be made within thirty days of receiving such request. Any insurer who fails to comply with the provisions of this section shall be liable to pay to the claimant the sum of five hundred dollars plus reasonable attorneys' fees and expenses incurred in obtaining the coverage information provided for herein."
- Minnesota Statutes 72A.201 subdivision 11: "An insurer must disclose the coverage and limits of an insurance policy within 30 days after the information is requested in writing by a claimant."
If the defense does not voluntarily provide insurance information, one can serve interrogatories asking about insurance coverage. "Interrogatories" are written questions that, in a lawsuit, have to be answered truthfully, under penalty of perjury. (For a set of interrogatories and other documents required for a dog bite lawsuit, get the Dog Bite Lawsuit Forms used by Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips, the author of this website.)
An insurer's failure to reveal policy limits at the pre-litigation stage can serve as a basis for bad faith actions. (See International Risk Management Institute, Disclosing Policy Limits in Liability Claims: A Landmine for Bad Faith, Internet, accessed 4/5/2016.)
If the injured person (or his parents if he is a child) cannot retain an attorney because the case is too small, they can file a lawsuit in small claims court. When it is served by the sheriff, the defendants will turn it over to their insurance company if they are smart. Once the insurance company has it, there is a chance the company will get in touch with the victim or his family to try to negotiate a solution.