Massachusetts Court Rules that Homeowners Insurance Company Was Obligated to Defend Dog Bite Claim, Despite Alleged Misrepresentation About Bite History

A liability insurance policy is, at its essence, a contract. In determining whether to enter into the agreement, an insurance company is entitled to rely on certain representations made by the would-be insured and to price its product accordingly.

Once the agreement is made, the insured has the right to demand that the insurance company defend him or her against any claims that are covered under the policy and pay any judgments (up to the policy limits) resulting from such claims.

A recent case explored the issue of whether a particular misrepresentation by the insureds during the application process was sufficient for the insurance company to later void the policy and deny coverage of a claim that would otherwise be covered.

Facts of the Case

In a recently decided Massachusetts case, the plaintiff was a woman who was injured in a 2011 incident in which the defendant homeowners’ American Bulldog attacked her two Yorkshire Terriers while she was walking on a public street near the defendants’ residence. As a result of the altercation, the plaintiff suffered a broken arm, a cut on her face, and numerous scrapes on her extremities.

In 2013, the plaintiff filed suit, alleging both negligence and strict liability claims against the homeowners and asserting a claim against the insurance company for unfair claim settlement practices, due to its denial of the plaintiff’s claim against the homeowners. The insurance company sought a declaration that the liability policy issued to the homeowners was void and did not afford coverage.

The coverage issue proceeded to a bench trial, at which the court found in the insurance company’s favor.

Decision of the Appellate Court

The Massachusetts Appeals Court vacated the trial court’s judgment and entered a new judgment to the effect that the insurance company was contractually obligated to provide coverage for the plaintiff’s claim against the homeowners. With regard to the homeowners’ negative answer to a question concerning “breed and bite history” – when, in fact, the dog in question had bitten two other dogs prior to the application – the court noted that the trial court judge had interpreted that ambiguous language to mean “biting anything or anybody,” but a more reasonable interpretation of the language was “biting history for humans only.” Since the homeowners answered that question honestly, there was no misrepresentation as to the dog’s biting history.

As to the other question (which the court also found to be ambiguous) inquiring about the “loss history” associated with the dog, the court noted that the homeowner himself paid a $200 veterinary bill to the owner of another animal that his dog had bitten. However, given that this payment was only a small fraction of the homeowners’ personal liability policy limit, it was reasonable for the homeowner to not consider this a “loss for an insurance company.”

Talk to a Lawyer About Holding a Cape Cod Homeowner Liable for a Dog Bite

The results-driven Cape Cod personal injury attorney at the Law Offices of John C. Manoog, III, in Hyannis and Plymouth can help if you or a family member has been seriously injured by a dog bite. For a free case evaluation, call us at 888-262-6664 and schedule an appointment to discuss your case. We accept most personal injury cases on a contingency fee contract, so you will not have to pay a legal fee up front to get your case started.

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