Dog Bites: The Insurance Risk

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What happens if your dog bites someone and they take you to court for damages? Here's a look at an often-ignored aspect of liability insurance.


Pet liability insurance isn't exactly top of mind for animal owners. Yet when dogs bite, their owners may be forced to pay up. That was the case for Christiaan van Meyeren, a Port Elizabeth dog owner, who was hit with a R2,4 million lawsuit when his three dogs attacked gardener and refuse collector Gerald Cloete so viciously that Cloete had to have his arm amputated.


Cloete was simply walking through a residential suburb after completing a job, when the dogs escaped from their open gate (which Van Meyeren claimed intruders had opened) and attacked him. Van Meyeren tried to use the alleged intruders' actions as a defence, but he lost the case. According to court documents, Van Meyeren – who wasn't at home at the time of the attack – had to pay compensation costs to the victim.


While most dog bite incidents aren't as horrifying as that particular case, there is always a chance that even the most sedate of dogs might bite someone. In that case, what are dog owners liable for?


Animal accountability


According to South African law, animal owners are fully responsible for any harm caused by their pets. The only admissible defences in the face of this law, known as actio de pauperie (say that three times fast!), are:


  • The injured party was in a place they had no right to be (for example, an intruder).
  • The victim knew of the risk of sustaining injury from the dog and voluntarily accepted that risk.
  • The animal was provoked by the injured party or a third party.
  • A third party had custody of the animal and failed to prevent the animal from causing harm (i.e. the pet was in another person's care at the time).


Aside from such instances, the responsibility automatically lies with the pet owner, regardless of whether or not they were present when the attack took place. In fact, the victim of a dog bite can claim damages from a dog owner without having to prove fault. Pet owners may be liable for the victim's costs, including legal and medical expenses, wage losses, and pain and trauma suffered due to the injury.


So no matter how cute and cuddly your little Fluffy or Pudding may be, or how well trained your guard dog Spike is, it's in your best interests to check that their misdeeds are covered by your insurance. What's more, in the case of a guard dog, owners are expected to put a notice on their gates informing those who enter of the animal's presence.


Dog bite insurance?


Most dog bites happen on private property. Depending on your policy (and the ins and outs of a particular case), your homeowner's insurance might cover damages resulting from dog bites or other injuries caused by your animals on your property. This would form part of the liability cover that is included in most homeowners' insurance policies and which covers accidents or injuries that occur on your premises.


Some policies may also cover any legal fees incurred should you choose to fight against a pet injury claim. Keep in mind, however, that an insurer has the right to refuse a claim. That's why, unless you're absolutely sure your insurance will pay up, as a pet owner you should avoid verbally accepting liability or agreeing to cover the costs of any injury.


Naturally, homeowner's insurance does not extend to injuries your animal inflicts away from your property (say, in the local park). It's therefore vital that you study the terms and conditions of your homeowner's insurance policy. It could mean the difference between peace of mind and potential bankruptcy.


Prevention is always preferable. If your dog has obvious anger issues, it's up to you to address this, even if you have to enlist professional help in the form of a vet, dog trainer or animal behaviourist. That said, even the 'goodest' of good dogs can have a bad day. That's why it pays to be insured. Use our tool to compare quotes on Home Insurance.


This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as financial, legal or medical advice.

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