Claudia Buck

Pit bull, other dog owners face being denied homeowners insurance

Moyses Baldizan, petting his pit bull Rocky on Thursday, was told by his insurer that it could no longer provide coverage because the dog is a bite risk.
Moyses Baldizan, petting his pit bull Rocky on Thursday, was told by his insurer that it could no longer provide coverage because the dog is a bite risk. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Rocky’s a big, lovable lunk of high-energy dog who wouldn’t hurt anyone.

At least that’s according to his owners, Moyses and Shirley Baldizan of Sacramento. But to many insurance companies, he’s a bitingly big risk and a potential liability.

That’s what the retired couple recently discovered when they were redoing their homeowners insurance policy. Their longtime insurer, The Hartford, said it could no longer provide coverage after being informed the family’s pet was a 65-pound pit bull, one of the breeds many insurance companies classify as too risky to insure.

Moyses Baldizan, 81 and a retired mechanic, was stunned. “My reaction? I was very upset about it. We love our dog, and he wouldn’t hurt anybody.”

On a recent afternoon, Rocky, a brindle-coated pit bull who was adopted as a pup and has been the family pet for five years, was a rambunctious bundle, tugging on the leash held by the couple’s son Michael, who also lives at the south Sacramento home.

In 2013, U.S. insurers collectively paid out more than $483 million in 2013 for 17,369 claims for dog-bite injuries.

“The presence of some dog breeds may make a home ineligible for insurance coverage,” said Heather Serignese, spokeswoman for The Hartford, a nationwide property and casualty insurance company, in an email. “Each customer’s situation is different and we encourage homeowners to speak with their insurance company or agent for more information.”

Insurers wary

In a study issued last May, the New York-based Insurance Information Institute said dog bites comprised more than one-third of all homeowner liability claims in 2013, averaging about $27,800 per claim. California had the most dog-bite claims – 1,919 – totaling $64.7 million in 2013.

Noting that total claims in 2013 were up 5.5 percent from the previous year, the insurance institute said the increase may be attributable to “non-bite injuries,” such as scratching, tripping, knocking down or frightening a person. Those types of claims are far less costly than dog bites, which may require reconstructive surgery.

Randy Brown, a longtime independent insurance agent with McDowall & Keeney Insurance in Sacramento, said he works with seven or eight different insurance carriers and “literally, none of them will write policies for pit bulls, even mixed breeds.”

Similarly, David Belez, owner of a Farmers Insurance Group office in Cameron Park, said some insurers will cover pit bulls or other breeds, but exclude liability coverage for bites or attacks. Others flat-out won’t offer coverage because “the risk is greater than the average breed. There are too many bites, too many claims.”

It’s been an issue in California since the early 2000s, when insurers started retreating from covering certain types of canines, according to state insurance officials.

Pet owners should “really check with their insurer before they buy or adopt a dog to see if it’s covered,” said Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for the state Department of Insurance. And the easiest way to find out what’s covered, she said, is to read what’s not covered, at the back of your policy.

Above all, she noted, don’t lie. Many insurance companies, when filling out a homeowners application for an insurance policy, ask a standard question: Do you own a dog? And if so, what breed? If, for instance, you say that your Rottweiler is merely a beagle, it could become costly if your dog bites someone and you get sued or have to file a claim.

“If you lie, they could deny your claim for providing false information,” Kincaid said. “It’s considered insurance fraud.”

Keeping dogs safe

If an insurer says no to your Rotweiller, keep shopping.

State Farm, for instance, maintains that any dog can bite, and does not exclude any breed. “We get multiple calls every week from people who’ve been denied or can’t get insurance” for their pit bulls or other dogs considered risky, said Stephanie Bader, a State Farm agent in Roseville. “It’s sad.”

Bader said State Farm agents ask only two questions of dog owners: Has the dog ever been trained for attack purposes and has it ever bitten anyone?

And it’s not as though State Farm doesn’t deal with dog bites. In California, the company said it had 449 dog-bite claims in 2013, paying out $14.7 million on those claims. The average dog-bite claim was about $32,000.

Bader, a former teacher whose insurance office has a “dog wall” of photos of clients’ puppies and dogs, said animals are part of customers’ families, but all pet owners need to be responsible.

“It’s about educating our customers – dog owners and kids – about how to approach a dog, the signs to look for in aggressive dogs, how to get out of a risky situation,” Bader said.

Part of State Farm’s effort is co-sponsoring National Dog Bite Prevention Week, held annually in May, which works to educate the public on canine behavior. For instance, parents are advised to never leave their children home alone or unattended with their dogs. And kids should be taught to ask permission of dog owners before they play, touch or reach out to a dog.

For families like the Baldizans, it’s incomprehensible that anyone could be fearful of Rocky, who spends most of his time in the backyard. “It’s kind of shocking how judgmental an insurance company can be about a dog breed,” said Baldizan, a former Korean War veteran whose pets also include a cat and a cockatiel. For now, he’s got a new homeowners insurance policy and says he wasn’t asked about Rocky’s lineage.

Call The Bee’s Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or read her Personal Finance columns at sacbee.com/claudiabuck.

Dog Bits –

and Bites

Some insurance companies say any dog can bite and will provide pet owners with coverage, regardless of breed. Others say pit bulls – and other specific breeds – are too risky to cover. Here are some 2013 insurance statistics and dog-bite tidbits:

Common breeds denied insurance coverage: Akita, American Staffordshire terrier, Boerboel, chow, Doberman pinscher, English bull terrier, mastiff, Presa Canario, rottweiler and wolf-hybrids.

Dog bites: Each year, about 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs. That’s out of an estimated 70 million dogs.

Average U.S. dog-bite claim: $27,862

Most bitten: Children, who account for roughly one-third of all dog bites, followed by seniors and postal carriers.

States with most dog-bite claims in 2013: California (1,919 claims/$33,709 average per claim); New York (965/$43,122); Ohio (948 claims/$18,853); Illinois (914/$28,941); and Pennsylvania (909/$29,078)

How to prevent dog bites: In an effort to reduce dog-bite incidents nationally, National Dog Bite Prevention Week, May 17-24, encourages proper training and handling to raise confident, happy dogs. Sponsored by State Farm insurance and Animal Planet star and dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, the annual campaign emphasizes that even docile dogs may bite if frightened or defending their puppies, food or owner. To avoid that, Stilwell encourages educating parents and children about dog handling, along with proper breeding, training and socializing of dogs.

For details on preventing dog bites, visit the American Veterinary Medical Association at avma.org.

Source: Bee research, Insurance Information Institute

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