Like most law school final exam questions, the answer begins with “It depends on . . . .” It depends on the circumstances and your insurance coverage.
People own dogs, man’s best friend, for many reasons. Companionship, affection, security, teaching children the value being responsible for caring for a pet and just plain having fun are a few. Most dog owners feel responsible for damage done by their pets from both a moral and legal perspective. Naturally we feel bad when our dog, or any other pet, unexpectedly bites or hurts another person. Personal responsibility for what the animal has done would be in the forefront of most people’s minds.
Florida has a dog bite statute which makes the owner strictly liable for damage done by their dog. Florida Statute Sections 767.01 through 767.04 establish a dog owner’s legal liability for their dog’s conduct making the owner responsible for damage caused by the owner’s dog. Other statutes make a dog owner liable for injured livestock as well. The statutes apply whether the bite took place on your property or not.
Florida law permits a dog owner several defenses to a bite. First, if the dog is in an area where the owner has posted a “BAD DOG” sign or a sign that says “BEWARE OF DOG” the owner is immune from liability. In the absence of a sign, a dog owner’s liability can be reduced if the dog owner can show that the person bitten provoked the dog or was otherwise negligent in some fashion. Thus it is always wise to post a warning sign, even where your dog is the friendliest of man’s best friends.
If a dog owner is faced with a claim for damage done by the owner’s dog, the owner can turn to the owner’s homeowner insurance company for payment of damages. Homeowner’s insurance covers you for activities on and off of your property. In the past, insurance companies routinely paid dog bite claims, until ownership of certain breeds of dogs came into vogue, namely Pit Bulls. To protect themselves, insurance carriers first started inserting exclusions into policies, know as endorsements, for certain breeds of dogs due to the type of breed with the most claims. Pit Bulls headed the list. Dobermans, Rottweilers, and others were later added to the list. The list kept growing until insurers placed blanket exclusions for damage done any animal, including cats, horses, birds and reptiles.
Today, most homeowner insurance policies include an endorsement (an amendment excluding coverage for damage done by animals that overrides the policy) inserted into the policy. Many of these policies are issued even when the homeowner does not own a dog when the policy is purchased so the issue is not discussed with the agent. It is not until later when a dog is brought into the home during the policy period that the endorsement takes on its intended legal effect of NO COVERAGE. Florida law imposes a duty on every insured to read their insurance policy and charges them with knowing what is in the policy and the effect of any endorsement. Accordingly, it is important that you read all insurance policies you purchase and ask your agent questions when something appears that you did not ask for or you do not understand.
What if Brutus is not your dog, but you own rental property where your tenant owns and keeps Brutus. Can you be liable if Brutus attacks someone on your rental property? Again, the answer is: it depends. Florida law imposes liability on a landlord where the landlord knows of the vicious propensities of the tenant’s dog (a presumed fact when dealing with Pit Bulls) and the landlord has the ability to remove Brutus from the property, usually a standard clause in a residential lease.
Your financial future can hang on the teeth of your pet. You can protect yourself by seeking insurance coverage for you and your pets. For an increase in your premium, many companies will remove the animal exclusion from your homeowner’s policy. Read your policy and ask the right questions of your agent to protect yourself and others who suffer from the actions of your pet.
If you have questions about animal exclusions or other insurance issues, contact us at 239-334-1146.
By: Richard Purtz, Partner