In Massachusetts, uninsured renters who own or keep a dog may not recognize that they run a finite but very real risk that their dog could bankrupt them.
The uninsured liability risk that up to 500 thousand Massachusetts renters have
There are over 38 million households that rent in the United States. In a survey conducted by the Insurance Information Institute, the I.I.I. found that more than 65% of these households, or over 24 million, did not carry renters insurance. A quick survey of marketing for renters insurance shows that the offerings emphasize a policy’s financial protection against the loss or destruction of the renters’ possessions when they rent a house or apartment. A narrower marketing focus, however, on renters who own dogs might produce a lot more sales.
In 2013, it was estimated that 56.7 million U.S. households owned dogs. Assuming owner and renter households keep dogs in equal proportions, the I.I.I. survey would indicate that approximately 12.9 million renter households have dogs but have no renters insurance.
Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Census, has over 2.5 million households. Using the above statistics, between 400 thousand and 500 thousand households in Massachusetts may rent, own dogs, but have no renters insurance to cover them if their dogs bite anyone.
These uninsured renters have a high risk of incurring personal liability based upon the frequency and severity of dog bite claims and Massachusetts’ strict dog liability law.
Approximately 800,000 people seek medical treatment each year for dog bites
The available statistics for dog bite injuries show the high risk that owning a dog can entail. The CDC states that:
- Over 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States.
- Of the 4.5 million people who are bitten, about 885,000, or one in five, require medical attention for their dogbite-related injuries; half of those requiring such treatment are children.
Liability does not depend upon any degree of negligence or lack of due care by the owner or keeper
- There were 360,000 nonfatal dog bite injuries treated in U.S. emergency rooms in 2011, up from 312,000 in 2007.
- In 2012 more than 27,000 people underwent reconstructive surgery as a result of being bitten by dogs.
The 2013 report from the I.I.I. on insured dog bite claims shows:
- Dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims paid out in 2012.
- The payments for these insured claims totaled over $489 million.
- The average claim paid in 2012 cost $29,752.
- From 2003 to 2012 the cost of the average dog bite claim increased by 55.3 percent.
In Massachusetts, all dog owners or keepers have strict liability for the damage their dogs cause
While most homeowners carry homeowners insurance because their mortgage holders require coverage, renters do not usually have a similar contractual obligation to purchase renter’s insurance. If they own a dog, however, they should.
In Massachusetts, the law holds dog owners or keepers strictly liable for any personal injury or property damage their dog causes. Under, G.L. c. 140, § 155, states, in part:
If any dog shall do any damage to either the body or property of any person, the owner or keeper, or if the owner or keeper be a minor, the parent or guardian of such minor, shall be liable for such damage.
In other words, if you own a dog, or you babysit a dog as a favor for a friend, or your minor child walks a neighbor’s dog to earn extra money, and that dog does any damage, you are legally liable.
Liability does not depend upon any degree of negligence or lack of due care by the owner or keeper. The negligent acts of the injured person also do not matter. The statute applies unless the person injured “was committing a trespass or other tort, or was teasing, tormenting or abusing such dog.” If the injured person was a child under seven, the legal presumption is that the minor was not trespassing, teasing, tormenting or abusing the dog.
How different is this from a regular negligence case? Very different.
In dog bite cases, many times judges will not allow a jury to decide the dog owner or keeper liability. If the defendant does not dispute the ownership or control of the dog and cannot show the injured person trespassing, or tormenting, teasing or abusing of the dog at the time of the injury, then he has liability for the damage the dog did. The only remaining question for the jury to answer is how much the dog’s owner or keeper has to pay.
Strict liability is similar to no fault insurance. Dog owners or keepers pay for the damages caused by their dogs without regard to whether they did anything wrong. If they are not insured they pay out of their own pocket or go bankrupt.
- Many renters are students or younger people who do not see the value in the major benefit pushed in marketing renters insurance: the indemnity for personal property lost to an insured peril. Their reasoning may be valid if they do not own a dog. The cost of the insurance in relation to the value of the personal property they own may not make the coverage worthwhile and their premise liability for their rented property may be negligible.
- However, uninsured renters should know that if they, or their minor children, own or keep dogs, their dog causing a strict liability injury will result in a money judgment against them if the injured party sues.
- An injury caused by a dog can haunt an uninsured person for a long-time. Judgments in Massachusetts are valid for twenty years and they accrue interest at 12% per annum. A student or young person may not have any assets today but that may not always be the case. If they have an uninsured dog claim and the injured party recovers a judgment, that party may wait until they are earning money. Ten or fifteen years after the incident, they may suddenly find their wages, assets or condo being attached because of what their long-gone Fido did when they tried to save some money by not buying renters insurance to cover the dog.