When your normally friendly family pet bites a neighbor, friend or dog-park stranger, things can spiral out of control quickly. Beyond the immediate terror and applications of first aid, the damage from a serious dog bite can linger for years — especially if you end up on the hook for medical or legal bills.
The liability coverage provided by your homeowners policy pays out when someone is injured due to your negligence, like when they fall on your broken walkway or are bitten by a dog in your care. Homeowners insurance has two broad components — property insurance to cover your things (including structures and belongings) and liability insurance to cover you.
In most cases, homeowners insurance covers dog bites and can help cut down on the long-term financial impacts of your dog’s actions. In 2019, the insurance industry paid out almost $800 million in liability claims due to dog bites and other dog-related injuries, according to a study from the Insurance Information Institute and State Farm. Those claims cost, on average, $44,760. Both the number of claims and the average size have risen in recent years.
Dog bite insurance
Your homeowners insurance doesn’t explicitly cover dog bites. Instead — with some exceptions, like medical payments as explained below — dog bites are rolled into liability coverage. That means if a dog in your care bites someone and you are found liable in court, your insurer will pay the medical bills of the victim and any legal expenses you may wind up with, up to the limits of your policy.
The bite doesn’t have to happen at your home, either. While it’s called "homeowners insurance," your home is almost secondary in this case. The real coverage is for your legal liability. Dog bites found to be your fault are covered almost anywhere they happen.
There are some situations where your insurer won't pay for dog bite injuries. If you set your dog on someone or encourage the dog to bite someone, you won't be covered. If a dog bites someone in a business setting — a dog grooming business you run out of your garage, for example — your homeowners policy won’t cover it, although business insurance might.
That means the amount of dog bite insurance you have depends on the liability coverage included in your homeowners insurance policy. Typically, this will be between $100,000 and $500,000.
Medical payments coverage for dog bites
Liability insurance is important when your dog seriously injures someone, but sometimes the injury is more minor. If a neighbor is bitten and needs to go to the doctor for a few stitches or a shot, they might not be interested in squeezing every dime they can out of you, especially if it was an accident or their fault.
In those less-serious cases, your homeowners insurance medical payments coverage will come into play. This is a no-fault insurance, which basically means it cares about what happened, not why it happened or who did what. Medical payments coverage usually comes in smaller amounts than liability insurance and can be used for less-major medical bills.
Homeowners insurance breed restrictions
While some insurers will cover your home and any dog bites regardless of what kind of dog you have, other insurers won't. These breed restrictions can make purchasing a policy that fits your life more difficult, especially if you own a dog that shows up on dangerous breed lists.
Pit bulls often make up the bulk of these lists, even though the term "pit bull" can apply to many dogs of mixed breeding. That’s one of the reasons some scientists and health professionals are hesitant to call any breed more dangerous than another.
But some states have enacted breed-specific laws and some insurers limit the breeds covered as part of a homeowners policy. Over 20 states have rules against breed-specific laws or have never passed such a law, though five states allow local restrictions.
Those local regulations can include restrictions on ownership and rules for owners of specific breeds (e.g., posting signs, using special colored collars, pay a fee). It can also include having liability insurance to cover damages caused by those dogs.
If your insurer won’t cover your dog because of its breed, you might want additional personal liability insurance. Umbrella insurance may give you the coverage you need. You could also switch your homeowners insurance to a company that doesn’t care about your dog’s breed.
Landlord responsibility for dog bites
Generally, laws hold dog owners responsible for dog bite injuries. However, landlords can be included in personal injury lawsuits if the owner of the dog doesn’t have enough of their own liability insurance to cover damages or if the landlord was found to be negligent.
As a landlord, your exposure to liability could be increased if you were aware of the presence of a restricted breed or dangerous dog, yet took inadequate action to confine or remove it.