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Am. Family Mut. Ins. v. Williams – Insurer is Required to Indemnify Homeowners for Dog Injury

They say, “Every dog has it’s day.” Increasingly, those dogs are winding up in court – or at least, their owners are. The Insurance Information Institute (III) reports dog bites and other dog-related injuries accounted for more than a third of all homeowner insurance liability claim dollars paid out last year, amounting to more than $570 million. The average cost per claim reportedly spiked 16 percent that year, up to an average of $37,200. dog3

Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising considering that nearly 80 million American households have pets and, at the end of the day, dogs are animals. Even those that are well-trained and relatively predictable can have moments of behaving in a way that is unexpected or aggressive. Here in Florida, F.S. 767.04 says that victims of dog bites or other dog-related injuries don’t have to prove the dog was previously vicious or that the owner knew of this viciousness in order to collect damages. It is true that any negligence on the part of the person bitten could be used as a means to reduce the dog owner liability, but it won’t preclude the claim entirely.

Given how many homeowner insurance claims stem from incidents involving dogs, many home insurance companies are trying to find ways to reduce their losses. They are fighting back hard on these claims. 

One such case recent case is that of Am. Family Mut. Ins. v. Williams, weighed not long ago by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

According to court records, plaintiff was staying with a college friend and his wife in October 2012. The couple lived in an Indiana suburb and, like many people, they had a dog. One day, while the homeowner couple had to go to work, they left their guest at home with the dog. They told their guest that the dog would be fine inside while they were away. However, if she wanted to go outside, she would ring a bell by the front door and he could simply let her out. They made no mention of walking her.

A few hours later, shortly before 11 a.m., plaintiff was watching television when he heard the dog scratch on the bedroom door. We went downstairs, put a leash on her collar and walked outside with her. There was no incident and both returned inside. About an hour later, he heard the doggie bell ring by the front door. He went downstairs again and found the dog whining by the front door. Once again, he grabbed the leash and took the dog outside.

All of the sudden, another dog barked. When his host’s dog heard this bark, she lunged toward it. Because plaintiff was still holding onto the leash, he was pulled to the ground, resulting in a serious personal injury to his shoulder that required surgery.

He later sued the homeowners. Now, something to point out here: Some people are hesitant to file lawsuits against their friends or family members or even acquaintances. But what they usually come to realize is that it’s not that individual from whom they are trying to collect. Rather, it is the insurance company. But it is only after the insured is found liable can the injured person collect and receive reimbursement for his or her medical bills.

In this case, the insurer attempted to argue that the plaintiff guest was an “insured” under the terms of the policy because he was deemed “responsible” for the dog in this case.

However, the district court rejected this assertion and insisted the insurer had a duty to indemnify the homeowners – meaning provide a defense and pay the claim if they were deemed liable. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding it would “make no sense” to treat the plaintiff in this case as if he were legally responsible for his own injuries resulting from the actions of the dog.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Am. Family Mut. Ins. v. Williams, Aug. 8, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Lik v. L.A. Fitness – Gym Injury Lawsuit to Proceed, June 9, 2016, Miami Dog Injury Lawyer Blog

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