In the majority of states, the primary method of finding out whether the liable person is insured is to simply ask him for a copy of the “declarations page” of his homeowners or renters insurance policy. The “declarations” are the specific information about a policy, such as the policy number, name of insured, address of insured, and amounts of coverage.
This requires the victim (or victim’s family) to communicate with the dog owner, which can be difficult in many cases. When the dog owner is a friend, neighbor or family member, some dog bite victims prefer to leave this inquiry to their attorney. (In this section, the term “dog owner” is used to refer to owners, harborers, keepers, custodians and anyone else who might be liable for the bite.)
If the dog owner does not have homeowner or renter insurance, one should ask whether he has any of the other insurance policies listed in Who actually pays the damages.
If the limit of the insurance seems inadequate, one should also find out if the dog owner has an “umbrella policy” or “excess policy.” These are supplemental policies. Some dog owners have them as part of the motor vehicle insurance, so one should ask them to check their vehicular insurance and even to talk to their insurance agent or broker about this.
A serious problem for dog owners is the exclusion or limitation for animal-inflicted injuries. The insurance industry is getting away with selling insurance that excludes dog bite coverage or limits the coverage to a small amount of money. If this dog owner has that kind of insurance and doesn’t have an umbrella or excess policy to supplement it, then he might not have insurance. (An umbrella policy might provide dog bite coverage even if the underlying policy doesn’t.)
These kind of uncertainties lead to confusion. Many dog owners don’t know that their homeowner insurance covers dog bites (as does renters insurance and the other types mentioned above). Furthermore, some dog owners say that they don’t have insurance when they don’t know one way or another — and even when they know that they have it. People do this in the hope that a victim will simply “lick his wounds” and disappear. Needless to say, you can’t accept that if your injuries are serious.
There are few states that require a person to disclose their insurance in dog bite cases and other non-vehicular accidents. For example, see Georgia State Code, Title 33, Chapter 3, Section 28 (GSC 33-3-28), which requires the dog owner or other liable person to disclose the identity of every insurer within 30 days, and requires the insurer(s) to provide a copy of the insured person’s declaration page or else a statement giving complete information about all known insurance including but not limited to excess and umbrella coverage. See also Florida statute 627.4137.
If you cannot get details of the insurance policy, or the dog owner denies having any, the only way to know whether insurance exists is to serve the owner with a lawsuit. You then will find out because his lawyer will let you know during “discovery” and “disclosure” — two processes that take place in lawsuits. For this, the dog bite victim must retain a lawyer. For more information about the decision to retain an attorney, see Should Parents Get a Lawyer for Their Injured Child? (if the victim is a child) or Does an Adult Need a Lawyer for a Dog Bite Claim?
Remember that lawyers who represent consumers commonly offer free consultations. That’s one of the many services that “trial attorneys” give to the public. They also will enter into a contract that says that they will not be paid anything until the very end of the case, when money is available. Furthermore, in most states they also agree to advance all of the costs of the litigation. So if it looks like there might not be insurance, but the injuries are serious, you may have to see a lawyer simply to find out whether the dog owner is insured — but the good news is that it won’t cost you anything unless you win your case.