According to data gathered by the American Pet Products Association’s 2019-20 Pet Owners Survey, approximately 63 million American households own dogs. Data from the Insurance Information Institute indicates that in 2017, approximately 350,000 people were treated for non-fatal personal injury caused by dog bites, of which almost 10,600 were children ages two and younger.
Owning a dog comes with many perks, including companionship and a sense of responsibility and purpose. Many Americans also keep dogs for protection and to guard personal property or family members. To accomplish this latter goal, homeowners have historically chosen to own breeds of dogs specifically bred for their loyalty, aggressive spirit, and willingness to protect their owners from perceived danger at all costs.
While many homeowners may take comfort in owning a specific breed of dog that society has deemed dangerous, there are certain aspects of life that become inherently more difficult. Among these are applying for and obtaining a home insurance policy that will cover the liability risk of the dog biting someone on the property.
For dog owners in Illinois, navigating the legal frameworks surrounding dog bite laws, insurance coverage, and civil litigation can seem overwhelming. While consulting with an experienced local personal injury attorney should always be considered the best course of action, this article aims to provide readers with a baseline level of understanding with regards to how these different systems relate to one another.
Understanding Dog Bite Laws in Illinois
Illinois state law indicates that when a person’s dog causes injury to another individual without provocation, and that individual was peacefully conducting themselves in any place where they are lawfully able to be, then the owner of that dog is liable for any damages incurred by the dog bite victim. In other words, if the person was not trespassing or provoking the dog, then the owner is responsible if that dog bites someone.
This type of law is known as “strict liability,” meaning the owner is on the hook for damages incurred by the other party regardless of whether or not the owner was negligent in the events leading to the injury, as long as the victim did not provoke the dog and was legally on the premises where the incident occurred. Even if the dog’s owner took reasonable preventative measures in the moments leading to the attack, they are still considered liable for the bite victim’s medical expenses, pain and suffering, and any other damages indicated by the local court that oversees the case.
As previously mentioned, the rules governing dog bite cases in Illinois follow a doctrine of liability determination known as strict liability. This liability determination system is compared to states that use a doctrine commonly known as the “one bite rule.” In these states, dog owners are only considered liable for damages if their dog has previously bitten somebody and caused personal injury. When comparing the two different systems, Illinois and other states that follow strict liability laws take a harsher stance when it comes to dog bite liability and personal injury court cases.
In Illinois, the statute of limitations on filing a dog bite liability case with the court is two years. This means that dog bite victims have up to two years from the date of the attack to file a lawsuit against the owner of the dog. However, contacting a personal injury attorney as soon as possible is always the preferred course of action, as opposed to waiting until close to the expiration of allowed time.
Understanding Homeowners Insurance
Homeowner’s insurance exists to protect people from the financial risks involved in owning a home. Although homeowner’s insurance is not required by law in some states, many banks that issue mortgages require the mortgagee to purchase home insurance for at least the outstanding balance of the loan. Therefore, the majority of American homeowners end up needing home insurance to satisfy the requirements of their mortgage.
Home insurance policies typically consist of two different types of coverage. When most people think of home insurance, they think of cases where damage is caused to the physical structure of the home. For example, property damage to the siding of a home caused by hail and severe thunderstorms often prompts homeowners to file a claim with their insurance company. As long as the damage is covered in the terms of the policy, the insurance company will compensate the homeowner for the costs involved in repairing the damage.
Another common form of home insurance is liability protection. With liability insurance, homeowners are insured against the risk of personal injury that individuals may incur while on your property. For example, if someone trips and falls on your property and decides to pursue a liability claim, homeowners insurance can help reduce the financial burden involved in going to court and monetary compensation for damages the judge determines you are liable for paying.
Liability coverage in a homeowners insurance policy typically begins at $100,000. However, it is important for individuals to take time to assess whether or not this level of liability coverage is appropriate for their unique circumstances. For example, homeowners who have multiple dogs on the premises may want to invest in a higher level of liability coverage.
Dog Bites and Home Insurance
Dog-related injuries are typically covered under a home insurance policy and are considered a form of liability coverage. However, some insurance companies have existing coverage limits, refusing to issue an insurance policy to a homeowner who owns a certain breed of dogs that are considered dangerous. Due to these breed restrictions, owners of pit bulls, huskies, rottweilers, doberman pinschers, mastiffs, and German shepherds may encounter extra difficulty in securing a home insurance policy with adequate liability coverage due to the notoriously dangerous nature of these particular breeds of dog.
Some insurance companies decide whether to insure a home with dogs on a case-by-case basis. This can involve assessing whether the dog has a history of biting or may be prone to violence in that individual circumstance, regardless of the breed.
Ultimately, it is up to homeowners insurance companies to decide whether or not to include dog bite insurance as part of their liability coverage. Some insurance companies will require dog owners to sign a liability waiver specifically for dog attacks that cause personal injury on the property, meaning these specific incidents are exempt from coverage. Other insurance companies will charge more for a policy in homes where there are dangerous breeds living, or require the owner enroll the dog in behavior management classes before coverage can begin.
For homeowners who keep more aggressive dog breeds as pets, it is important to shop around for an insurance carrier that meets their needs. Taking the time to ensure their policy includes adequate liability coverage for dog bites can save money, time, and stress in the unfortunate event of an attack on the property.
The Role of Negligence in Dog Bite Cases
In addition to the Illinois dog bite statute that makes dog owners liable for unprovoked attacks, dog owners can also be found liable under a traditional negligence analysis. Was the dog owner exercising ordinary care? For example, a dog owner may need to take extra precautions such as a muzzle if he knows that his dog has a history of aggression towards people or other dogs.
Regardless if the dog owner is liable under the dog bite statute or a traditional negligence analysis, the dog owner is responsible for medical expenses, lost wages from time off work, “pain and suffering”, disfigurement, and “loss of normal life”.
Like many other states, dog bite claims in Illinois fall under the umbrella of personal injury law. Here, a major factor considered by the courts is the degree to which each party was at fault for the events that lead to the dog bite. In other words, the court asks, “How negligent was each party involved in the situation?”
Illinois state law follows the doctrine of fault determination known as “modified comparative fault.” Under this system, each party involved in a dog bite incident will be scrutinized to determine what percentage of fault they contributed to the event. In the case of a victim of a dog bite attack, if they are found to be 20% at fault, their final compensation amount will be reduced by 20% to reflect their level of negligence.
Modified comparative fault laws state that if any party is determined by the courts to be 50% or more at fault, they automatically become ineligible to receive compensation for damages. For victims of dog bite attacks, this means it is important to consult with an experienced local personal injury attorney before deciding to go to trial. These legal professionals can help victims take a realistic assessment of their involvement in the incident. For example, if the victim was trespassing on private property or was provoking the dog in some way, then the courts are almost certain to take this information into consideration when determining final compensation amounts.
Getting Professional Legal Counsel
The process of navigating the legal system, talking to insurance agents, and the issue of medical bills can be daunting and stressful for dog bite victims, especially when they are still healing from the trauma of the attack. For years, the attorneys at Palermo Law Group have been helping dog bite victims in and around Oak Brook fight for their right to fair compensation following a dog bite attack. Contact Palermo Law Group today for expert insight into your unique case.