Report: Dog Bite Claims Spike Nationally in 2016
Homeowner insurers felt the bite last year as dog bite cases jumped 18 percent across the country, spurring more than $600 million in claims—more than one-third of all homeowner liability claims for 2016.
In a report timed for this week’s observation as National Dog Bite Awareness Week, the Insurance Information Institute and State Farm Insurance said the average claim dropped by about 10 percent to $33,230 in 2016.
California recorded the most dog bite claims last year with 1,934, followed by Florida with 1,321 and New York with 1,042. Georgia came in at No. 10, with 462 claims.
“The decrease in the 2016 average cost per claim could be attributed to a decrease in severity of injuries,” said III vice president Loretta Worters in a statement accompanying the April 6 report.
“But the average cost per claim nationally has risen more than 70 percent from 2003 to 2016, due to increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards given to plaintiffs,” Worters said.
Atlanta solo David Zagoria, who specializes in dog bite cases, was not surprised to hear about their sudden increase.
“It was frankly a horrible year, with children getting killed and maimed all over the state,” said Zagoria, who estimates he has between 30 and 40 active dog bite cases.
The lawyer said he can’t point to any single reason for the jump, but he said lawmakers could do more to hold the owners of dangerous dogs accountable.
“Some states, like California and Alabama, impose strict liability if your dog bites somebody,” he said. “They also have designated breed dogs, so that if you have certain breeds—like pit bulls, obviously—they’ll make you post a bond in case the dog bites anyone.”
Zagoria said the most he has ever collected in a dog bite case was a $300,000 settlement. But such cases are all too rare, he said, and a recurring problem he runs into in researching dog bite cases is owners who are unprepared to safely keep a dog and frequently unable to pay medical and legal bills stemming from attacks.
“The main issue you run into is that these folks often just don’t have the best judgment or the resources to make things right,” he said.
In March, the Georgia Supreme Court handed down an opinion overturning decades of prior case law that made it difficult to hold a dog’s owner responsible for an attack unless the animal had bitten someone before.
In Steagald v. Eason (S16G0293), the high court overruled a trial court and the Court of Appeals, which had granted summary judgment to the owner of a pit bull that had snapped and growled at people but had not bitten anyone until it attacked a woman.
The requirement that a dog must be known to have bitten someone before was known as the “first bite rule,” although as the Supreme Court opinion noted, it was never meant as an absolute bar to an owner’s liability.
“An attempt to bite in the absence of provocation most certainly may be proof of a propensity to bite without provocation,” said the unanimous opinion written by Justice Keith Blackwell. “And as the Court of Appeals correctly recognized in earlier decisions, when the evidence shows that an owner or keeper knows of such an attempted bite—that a dog has snapped at someone, nicked someone with its teeth or otherwise used its mouth to attack someone without injuring her—it may well be sufficient to establish knowledge of a propensity to bite.”
Zagoria said the opinion was welcome, if overdue.
“One of the issues in Georgia has been this misunderstood idea that the dog gets a free bite,” he said.