America’s infatuation with canines has led to a breathtaking rise in the number of dog bites – and in the amount of money that insurance companies pay to compensate the bitten.
In California, one major insurer is growling back.
Farmers Group, Inc., has notified policyholders that bites by pit bulls, Rottweilers and wolf hybrids will no longer be covered by homeowners insurance in the state.
The move has drawn criticism from pit bull rescue groups and trainers.
"It is offensive," said Candy Clemente, who trains pit bulls for the Animal Planet show "Pit Boss." They are condemning these breeds indiscriminately without giving the home owners a chance to prove their dogs are not vicious."
But insurers say that bites from pit bulls and the other breeds have gone up dramatically in recent years - along with the cost of settling damage claims.
“We reviewed our liability claim history and we determined that three breeds accounted for more than 25% of dog bite claims,” said spokeswoman Erin Freeman. “In addition, these three breeds caused more harm when they attacked than any other breed.”
The move by Farmers, which will go into effect for California homeowners as their policies come up for renewal, is one of several efforts nationwide by insurance companies to limit an ever-increasing level of liability for dog bites.
Across the U.S., insurance companies paid out $480 million to people who were attacked by dogs in 2011 – a 50% rise in just eight years, according to data from the Insurance Information Institute. In California that year, insurers paid more than $20 million to settle just 527 claims.
Interactive Map: Dogbite Claims
Just last week, a 91-year-old Desert Hot Springs woman died after she was attacked by her two pit bulls. In San Diego on Monday, a woman and her daughter were convicted of involuntary manslaughter in another attack, after their two dogs attacked a 75-year-old woman who later died.
Emako Mendoza stepped outside her home to get a newspaper in June of 2011 when she was mauled by the two dogs. She suffered a heart attack and her left arm and leg had to be amputated. Mendoza died six months later.
To deal with the skyrocketing claims and attendant expense, insurers have adopted a number of new measures, the insurance institute said. Some, like Farmers, are asking customers to sign waivers acknowledging that bites will not be covered under certain circumstances.
Others are charging people extra for breeds like pitbulls, or refusing to cover dog bites altogether.
Still more insurers use what they call the “one-bite rule,” saying they’ll cover an attack the first time it happens – not if the animal bites someone else at another time.
Two states, Pennsylvania and Michigan, do not allow insurers to cancel or refuse coverage to owners of specific breeds.