The canine conundrum
By Christine Barlow
Anytime dogs and insurance are mentioned together, the howling and growling starts between the dog lovers who insist that any dog is well behaved if properly trained and those who believe that some dog breeds are born bad and are beyond training. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. But there is more to the issue of dogs and insurance than breed exclusions, including valuation for a deceased dog due to an accident and damage caused by the animal itself.
Over the past several years, various companies have established underwriting guidelines that exclude certain breeds of dog. If the insured has this breed, they either must exclude liability for injuries caused by the animal or they simply do not qualify for a policy. The breeds commonly mentioned are Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Chows, Pit Bulls, and Dobermans. Regardless of whether or not you believe that these dogs can be trained to behave, the fact of the matter is that if they do bite, their size and strength can lead to more serious injuries than dogs such as Daschunds, Chihuahuas, or Poodles. Even if the dog has been trained extensively, there is no way to account for human action. In one case a child climbed into a pen with a mother Doberman and her puppies. Due to pure animal nature the mother dog attacked the child to protect her puppies. The mother dog did nothing wrong, she was acting naturally and the humans were not watching the child. However the insurance company paid policy limits for injuries to the child. It is because of instances like this that carriers began excluding certain breeds. While a large dog may be well trained, the underwriter has no guarantee that the humans are equally well behaved.
While dogs are considered to be personal property, they are excluded from the homeowners policy for physical damage coverage. If the dog is injured in a house fire, there is no coverage for the vet bills incurred in treating the animal.
Damage done by animals owned or kept by an insured is also excluded, and this is where some confusion occurs. The intent is to exclude repetitive damage that occurs over time, such as the dog scratching on the kitchen door to be let outside. Over time the door will become scratched and damaged. This is wear and tear and part of the result of not training the family pet to behave. However, if a burglar locks the dog in a room and the dog scratches on the door to get out, the damage is covered. The reason is that this is a fortuitous loss: if a burglar had not entered the home and locked up the dog, the dog would not have scratched on the door. To anthropomorphize a little, the dog was trying to get out to catch the burglar.
This brings us to liability coverage. It is clear that injury to others is covered if caused by an animal owned by or in care of the insured. So if the insured's teenager is dog sitting for the neighbors and the dog bites a neighborhood child, there is coverage for the injuries. However, the dog sitter is considered an insured, so if the dog bites the sitter, there is no coverage for the sitter's injuries. But what if the dog is the one who is injured? If a neighbor has put out rat poison that the insured's dog gets into and becomes sick or dies, does the neighbor's policy provide any coverage to the loss of the dog? The dog is not a person, so medical payments coverage does not apply. The only coverage available is damage to property of others, and most policies carry a limit of $1,000.
Many people travel with their pets, not only on long trips, but on everyday outings. Under the standard automobile policy, liability coverage is provided for "bodily injury" or "damages" for which the insured becomes legally responsible. Under the limits of liability, the policy states that payment is made for damages for care, loss of services, or death arising out of bodily injury for any one person. Since dogs are not people, they are personal property. If a dog runs in front of the insured's vehicle and the insured hits the dog, there is coverage for the dog's injuries. The dog is personal property and is covered the same way any other property would be covered.
What about the insured's own dog? Unfortunately, medical payments pertain only to insureds, and while many people consider their pets members of the family, the animals do not fit the policy definition of "family member". Coverage D pertains to damage to the covered auto and its equipment, and the dog is neither. Therefore there is no coverage for injuries to the insured's dog under the insured's policy.
However Progressive has added pet injury coverage to its collision coverage. It offers up to $1,000 in coverage if the pet is injured or worse in a vehicle accident, and it is automatically built in to the collision coverage on the policy. If the accident triggers collision coverage, then the pet is covered as well.
The difficulty of value comes up when a claimant's dog is injured. How much should be paid? It is possible for a vet bill to be hundreds, even thousands of dollars for a dog that the claimant got from the pound. While the claimant views the dog as family, it is still technically personal property, and a value must be determined. Is it reasonable to expect the carrier to pay $800 in medical bills for a dog the claimant got from the pound for $75? And what about depreciation? If the dog is ten years old and most dogs of that breed have an expected lifespan of 12 years, is the dog worth less because it is close to the end of its expected life span?
Emotional attachment is the primary issue when valuing a family pet. While pets technically are personal property, many owners see them as family members that have been loyal and loving for many years. While the vehicle can be totaled and taken to the junk yard, declaring a living being a total loss is dodgy at best.
The basic principles of indemnity still apply; the claimant has a right to be put back to where he was before the accident, with one healthy dog. If the dog is just injured, it is the same as a vehicle being damaged: both are "repairable". Therefore the vet bills for the injured dog, even if they are extreme, should be paid. It is not reasonable to declare a living creature a total loss, have it put down, and then replace it with a new dog.
To most people, the family pet is part of the family. According to the American Pet Products Association, in 2009 $45.5 billion was spent on pets and pet products in the United States. Therefore, how and whether or not pets are covered under standard home and auto policies are more important than one might expect.
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