Dangerous Loophole in Dog Owners’ Insurance

Integrity Insurance Company and a court of appeal in Wisconsin have put a new wrinkle on dog bite law that hurts dog owners, dog bite victims, Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance — in other words, a new wrinkle that will benefit only homeowner insurance companies such as Integirty Insurance, not their customers and not Americans in general.

Integrity Insurance devised a novel loophole to protect itself from dog bite claims, putting the burden entirely on everyone else including its own customers who expected to have protection. Specifically, Integrity Insurance inserted an unusual clause in its homeowners policies stating that it would refuse to defend any customer from a dog bite claim if there existed any “insurance claims records” or “records of a local public safety, law enforcement or other similar regulatory agency” saying the customer’s dog caused “bodily injury” to someone in the past, whether or not the customer knew about the prior incident or the existence of those records, and whether or not the dog’s prior behavior was similar to how the dog caused the current injury.

In other words, if you adopt a dog from a shelter and the shelter doesn’t tell you that the dog was in the shelter because it previously was accused of biting a person, and you therefore are completely unaware of any problem with your dog, Integrity Insurance will turn its back on you if your dog is accused of causing “bodily injury or property damage.”

This is a clever, nasty twist on the primary rule of dog bite law, which is that a dog owner should be held liable for injuries caused by his or her dog only if the dog owner knew or should have known that the dog either previously injured someone or something in the same manner or acted like it wanted to. This is referred to as the “one bite rule” and is the law in every state. Two-thirds of the states have enacted dog bite statutes which modify the law, mostly on the basis of simply owning the dog. But no state has passed a law making a dog owner liable on the ground that paperwork unknown to the dog owner exists in an insurance file somewhere, or in an animal control department somewhere, stating that the dog previously caused bodily injury.

Furthermore, the Integrity Insurance clause gives the insurance company the loophole simply on the basis of the dog causing any bodily injury. For example, if a dog previously was stepped on and reacted by biting, the dog owner would NOT be held liable under the one bite rule, but Integrity Insurance would be able to get out of insuring the dog owner if the dog injured a person in the future, no matter how different the dog’s behavior was, when compared to the prior incident.

Dog owners who bought insurance from Integrity Insurance Company are in trouble, thanks to this clause and the Wisconsin Court of Appeal which recently upheld it. Dog owners everywhere should check their policies to see whether they contain a similar exclusion. In the Integrity Insurance court decision, the exclusion provides that “we do not cover” “[b]odily injury or property damage caused by … [a]ny dog with a prior history of causing: (1) Bodily injury to a person,” which is “established through insurance claims records, or through the records of local public safety, law enforcement or other similar regulatory agency.” They key differences between this clause and the one bite rule which you have to look out for are (a) the clause is triggered by paperwork as opposed to the dog owner’s knowledge of the prior incident, and (b) the dog’s prior behavior does not have to be similar to what the dog did to cause the current injury.

(Whether you are a dog owner, a dog bite victim, a victim’s lawyer or simply interested in dogs and the law, bookmark DogBiteLaw.com to keep current and protect yourself!)