White v. Vermont Mutual – Homeowner Insurance for Dog Bite Injury

In 2013, officials reported 32 dog bite-related deaths in the U.S., with more than half of those being children and many others visiting or living temporarily with the dog’s owner when the attack occurred.

This is a serious considerations for all Carolina homeowners, but perhaps particularly so for those inviting a new dog into the home for the holidays.
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North Carolina was one of the top two states for the number of dog bite fatalities in 2012, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated some 885,000 people are treated in hospital emergency departments each year for dog bites nationwide. Victims incur an estimated $1 billion in medical bills and lost wages, according to the State Farm Times.

Many of these attacks may be covered by homeowners’ insurance. Some insurers won’t insure certain breeds of dogs, while others will decide it on a case-by-case basis. The Insurance Information Institute reports dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowner insurance liability claims paid out in 2013, costing nearly $500 million. The average cost per claim that year was $27,900 – a 45 percent increase over the last decade.

Our Charlotte dog bite lawyers recognize this compensation is available to many dog bite victims, but the greatest hurdle is getting a concession from the insurance company that the attack fell under policy terms. This requires the aid of a legal team with extensive knowledge and experience in litigating animal attack cases. Often, claims will result in a settlement prior to trail, but we are always prepared for the possibility of taking the case to a jury.

We understand insurers will parse every single detail of the incident and the policy in an attempt to minimize liability and compensation.

In the recent case of White v. Vermont Mutual Insurance Company, before the New Hampshire Supreme Court, insurers hinged their denial on the assertion the defendant was not covered under his mother’s homeowner’s insurance policy, even though the dog bite occurred at the mother’s home. The issue was whether the son was a resident relative, and therefore a covered insured per the terms of the policy.

According to court records, the dog bit one of the son’s guests, causing her injury. At the time, he was staying in the home with a group of friends. The home is a second home of the mother, who has another residence in Florida. The adult son refers to the home as his “mother’s vacation home,” not his own. He generally stays there for vacations, long weekends and trips with friends. He also asks her permission before going to stay there, particularly if he is with friends.

Both he and plaintiff sought coverage for the incident from his mother’s homeowner’s insurance policy. However, the insurer denied coverage, asserting defendant was not a resident relative of the mother’s. A relative, yes, but not a resident of the home.

The lower courts sided with the insurer, as did ultimately the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Defining a “residence” as a place wherein a person physically dwells and considers it the “principal place of abode,” the court noted defendant in this case technically lived in another state. He voted in another state. His vehicle license was registered out-of-state. And he told others he lived out-of-state.

The court found no ambiguity in the insurance policy with regard to this issue, and thus found the denial proper.

This means plaintiff could still possibly pursue action against the son/dog’s owner, but given that he is unemployed and not covered under the homeowner’s insurance policy, the ultimate amount of compensation received may be lacking.

Contact the North Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
White v. Vermont Mutual Insurance Company, Nov. 21, 2014, New Hampshire Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Gregory Coogan v. Cherryl Nelson et al.: Proving Dog Owner Knowledge of Vicious Tendencies, June 27, 2014, Charlotte Dog Bite Injury Lawyer Blog

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