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Dog bite liability payouts rise to $479 million in 2011

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Eleasha Gall, director of behavior and training at Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles, interacts with Tux, a one-year-old Pit bull, in an effort to promote behavior to avoid dog bites.

Dog bites cost insurance companies about $479 million in 2011, accounting for an increasingly large chunk of payouts under homeowner’s liability policies, according to a recent study.

While there was a slight decline in the number of dog bite claims, the price tag per case has risen 54 percent since 2003 — to an average of $29,400 in 2011 — making up more than one-third of total liability claims paid out by homeowners, according to the Insurance Information Institute, which conducted the study. 

"These increases can be attributed to increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards given to plaintiffs, which have risen well above the rate of inflation in recent years," the institute said in a release.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs each year and about 800,000 of them seek medical attention. Of those injured, 386,000 require treatment in an emergency room and 16 die, according to the CDC.


Kevin M. Phillips, a Beverly Hills based attorney who specializes in representing dog bite victims around the country, told msnbc.com  that studies suggest that the popularity of pit bulls in the United States are likely a contributing factor in the rising cost of claims paid out by insurance companies. 

"Attacks by pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death than are attacks by other breeds of dogs," concluded a study published in the Annals of Surgery in April 2011.

In some places, the law now provides different consideration for dog breeds like pit bulls, said Phillips. For instance, in Maryland, pit bulls are now deemed inherently dangerous, unlike most other breeds, said Phillips.

"If you own a pit bull and the pit bull hurts someone, no one has to prove it’s dangerous. It is presumed to be so," he said.

Traditionally, a homeowner liability policy covers dog bites, but some insurance companies are modifying how they write policies.

A CDC report on dogs involved in fatal human attacks between 1979 and 1998 — which the center specifies is not intended for policy making decisions — is nevertheless used as a guide for some insurers, according to a report in the Des Moines Register. At the top of that list are pit bulls, Rottweilers, German shepherds, huskies, Alaskan malamutes, Doberman pinschers and chow chows.

"Insurance companies started experimenting with cutting out the coverage for dog bites. Homeowners have got to confirm they have the coverage," said Phillips.

For some breeds of dogs associated with attacks, you may actually need a special canine liability insurance, he said. Without it, a serious dog attack can run up medical bills and compensation worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs to the pet owner.

"If your dog bites a child on the face, which is where a dog bites a child, it can wipe you out," he added.

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