Dog Bite Liability - Insurance Information Institute, Inc.


MAY 2011

Sixty-two percent of U.S. households, or 72.9 million homes, own a pet, according to a 2011 survey from by the American Pet Products Association.

Over the years, many states have passed laws with stiff penalties for owners of dogs that cause serious injuries or deaths. In about one-third of states, owners are "strictly liable" for their dogs' behavior, while in the rest of the country they are liable only if they knew or should have known their dogs had a propensity to bite (known as the "one free bite" principle).


§  Study: The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that 337,526 people in the U.S. were injured by dog bites in 2009, up slightly from 333,235 the previous year. The center is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

§  A December 2010 report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality indicates that the number of Americans hospitalized because of dog bites increased by nearly 100 percent over a 15-year period. In 2008 approximately 9,500 Americans received serious dog bites, compared with approximately 5,100 in 1993. The increase was far greater than population growth, and pet ownership increased only slightly during the period. Experts were not able to explain the increase. Children under five and adults 65 and older were more likely to be hospitalized after a bite. Nearly 50 percent of those hospitalized required treatment for skin and tissue infections and more than half received such procedures as skin grafts or wound debridement, with treatment costing an average of $18,200 per patient.

§  Claims: Dog bites account for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims, costing $413 million in 2010, virtually unchanged from 2009, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.). An analysis of homeowners insurance data by the I.I.I. found that the average cost of dog bite claims was $26,166 in 2010, up from $24,840 in 2009. Since 2003 the cost of these claims has risen nearly 37 percent. The number of claims declined to 15,770 in 2010 from 16,586 in 2009. State Farm Insurance reports that in 2010 it had the highest number of dog bite claims in California (369 claims, costing approximately $11.3 million), followed by Illinois (317 claims, costing approximately $9.7 million) and Ohio (215 claims, costing approximately $5.7 million).













Percent change, 2009-2010

Percent change, 2003-2010

Value of claims ($ millions)











Number of claims











Average cost per claim











Source: Insurance Information Institute. 


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State Legislation: Dog owners in about one third of the states and the District of Columbia are currently legally liable for deaths or injuries caused by their dogs. At least two states, Pennsylvania and Michigan, have laws that prohibit insurers from canceling or denying coverage to the owners of particular dog breeds.  The American Kennel Club also reports that many municipalities have enacted bans on specific breeds. Several states, however, have laws barring municipalities and counties from targeting individual breeds.

Insurers generally oppose legislation that would require changes to their dog breed practices. They contend that government public health studies and the industry’s claims histories show that some breeds are more dangerous than others and are higher loss risks.

Criminal Penalties: On January 26, 2001, two Presa Canario dogs attacked and killed Diane Whipple in the doorway of her San Francisco, California, apartment. The owner of the dogs, Marjorie Knoller, a San Francisco lawyer, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and keeping a mischievous dog that killed a person—she was sentenced to four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and was ordered to pay $6,800 in restitution. Her husband, Robert Noel, was convicted of two lesser charges but also received a four year prison sentence. Knoller became the first Californian convicted of murder for a dog’s actions. This was only the third time such charges have been upheld in the United States, the first coming in Kansas in 1997.

Insurers are Limiting their Exposure: Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability. Most policies provide $100,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage. If the claim exceeds the limit, the dog owner is responsible for all damages above that amount, including legal expenses. Most insurance companies insure homeowners with dogs. However, once a dog has bitten someone, it poses an increased risk. In that instance, the insurance company may suggest that the homeowner find the dog a new home, or may charge a higher premium, nonrenew the homeowner’s insurance policy, or exclude the dog from coverage.

Many insurers are taking steps to limit their exposure to such losses. Some companies require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites, while others charge more for owners of biting breeds such as pit bulls and Rottweilers and others are not offering insurance to dog owners at all. Some will cover a pet if the owner takes the dog to classes aimed at modifying its behavior or if the dog is restrained with a muzzle, chain or cage. It is unlikely that insurers will begin offering specialty insurance policies just for dog bites since the cost of such policies would be prohibitive.

Dog Owners’ Liability: Dog owners are liable for injuries their pets cause 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; or if the injury was caused by unreasonably carelessness on the part of the owner.

There are three kinds of law that impose liability on owners:

1) A dog-bite statute: where the dog owner is automatically liable for any injury or property damage the dog causes without provocation.

2) The one-bite rule: where the dog owner is responsible for an injury caused by a dog if the owner knew the dog was likely to cause that type of injury—in this case, the victim must prove the owner knew the dog was dangerous.

3) Negligence laws: where the dog owner is liable if the injury occurred because the dog owner was unreasonably careless (negligent) in controlling the dog.

In most states, dog owners aren't liable to trespassers who are injured by a dog. A dog owner who is legally responsible for an injury to a person or property may be responsible for reimbursing the injured person for medical bills, time off work, pain and suffering and property damage.

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