Homeowner’s Insurance Policy Could Limit Animal Liability Coverage for Dog Bite Claims

Many people in Cape Cod have pets.  The American Veterinary Medical Association (the “AVMA”) compiles statistics on pet ownership throughout the United States.  According to the data, 50.4% of households in Massachusetts own a pet; of that number, 23.6% have a dog.  While dogs bring much pleasure to the families who own them, there are certainly risks associated with pet ownership. One of the main risks is that sometimes dogs bite people.

A dog bite can cause moderate to serious injuries, ranging from cuts and scratches to more significant damages. In Massachusetts, dog owners are strictly liable for bites.  Essentially, this means that when a person’s dog bites someone else, the owner is legally responsible even if the dog has never attacked another person in the past. If you or someone you know has been bitten by a dog, you are most likely entitled to compensation for your injuries and losses. In order to maximize your recovery, it is important to contact a local injury attorney who is experienced handling dog bite cases.

A recent Massachusetts Supreme Court decision addressed the extent of insurance coverage for a dog bite claim.  In this case, the insured couple purchased a homeowner’s insurance policy with a $500,000 personal liability limit.  The policy included an Animal Liability Endorsement that limited coverage to $25,000 for each animal bite claim.  Interestingly enough, both the insured and the insured’s agent stated that they mistakenly believed that the policy did NOT contain this limitation of liability, but neither one mentioned it to the other. In fact, the parties did not discuss coverage for dog or animal bite claims.

In 2006, plaintiff was severely injured after being bitten in the face by the insured’s dog.  He and his wife brought a suit against the owner of the dog.  The court awarded plaintiffs over $250,000, and the insurance company paid only $25,000, citing the Animal Bite Endorsement contained in the homeowner’s insurance policy. The insured couple and plaintiffs reached a settlement regarding the remainder of the award, and plaintiffs became “assignees” of the insureds’ claims against Insurer.  Plaintiffs sued the insurer, claiming that because the insurer and the insureds were both mistaken about the application of the endorsement, the policy should be “reformed” by striking the provision.

The question before the Massachusetts Supreme Court was whether the mutual misunderstanding of the endorsement, which was never actually expressed by either party, provided a basis by which the plaintiffs may claim the legal principle of “mutual mistake”, and thus reform the contract. The court upheld the homeowner’s policy as originally written, holding that without clear, full, and decisive proof of a prior agreement between the parties regarding the animal bite coverage  — aside from what was contained in the policy — there was no mutual mistake justifying reformation of the policy.

As we see in this case, dog bite claims may be covered, and also limited, by a homeowner’s insurance policy. The victim may also bring a claim directly against the insurance company.  It is important to determine as early as possible the extent of the damages, including the victim’s suffering and losses.

Local attorney, John C. Manoog III, has extensive experience helping parties in dog bite cases in Cape Cod. For a free initial consultation, call the office at 888-262-6664 or reach us by email. There is always someone available to talk to you about your case.

Related Blog Posts:

Dog Bite Cases Can Cause Life-Threatening Injuries; Even Death

Woman Loses Three Limbs From Infection After Dog Bite

Tips for Cape Cod Residents and Visitors: How To Avoid a Dog Bite

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