Dog attacks: Liability bites

Dog bite

  • The Animals Act holds owners responsible for the actions of their pets and the Dangerous Dogs Act bans four breeds
  • An injury caused by a dog can be covered by the liability section of its owner’s household or pet policies
  • For pet-related businesses, the benefits of liability cover are clear

Injuries and damage potentially caused by dogs can be covered by pet or household policies. But there is a market for liability products, if not for owners, definitely for canine businesses

An estimated nine million dogs live in the UK, giving affection to their owners. On some occasions, however, horrific incidents happen: 78 people died from dog bites in England and Wales between 1981 and 2015, according to the Office for National Statistics. And more than 7000 hospital admissions every year are specifically caused by dog bites, according to the most recent NHS figures available (March 2014 to February 2015).

So risks are real and insurers should be clued up on matters canine. Nevertheless, some acted in a rather sheepish way when asked to comment on this topic.

One of the UK’s top experts is James McNally, partner at Slee Blackwell. Known as the ‘dog bite solicitor’, he normally is on the claimant side, but his knowledge has also been called on by defendant lawyers.

“This work is pretty much all I do now and work often comes in from other firms that are not clear on the Animals Act of 1971,” he explains. This complex law is applied to many dog bite cases, although a claim can also be made on negligence grounds.

The unwieldy Animals Act sets out how the ‘keeper’ (owner or person in charge) can be held responsible for the actions of their dog. It has been interpreted in different ways. But at its heart, it can impose ‘strict liability’, meaning someone can be held responsible for their dog causing an injury, subject to a number of tests.

Ensuring a case meets these is far from easy. Further, a case may not get off the ground if the individual concerned has no insurance. However, if they do, then a dog bite or other injury should be covered under the liability sections of either household or pet insurance policies.

“The Animals Act is poorly drafted and it takes a while to get your head around it. But, in most cases, it does the job and we’ve been successful in many cases that were rejected by other solicitors,” says McNally.

Specialist solicitors have contacts for behaviourists to provide evidence and expert barristers if required.

Many people already have household cover and increasing numbers are buying pet insurance. While many primarily want vets’ bills covered, some will also be mindful of liability, says Sarah Garner, solicitor at DAS Law. Her firm’s helpline sees “a regular stream of queries about dog-related issues such as bites and dogs being injured by products used by a dog groomer. This would seem to suggest people are more aware of their rights and also their liabilities where dogs are concerned.”

Petplan is one of the few insurers to include information on the value of liability insurance. According to head of marketing Isabella von Mesterhazy, “third-party liability cover is a vital part of any dog insurance policy, as it protects owners in the event their dog damages property or injures someone and they’re found legally liable. Owners not covered by insurance could find themselves facing huge compensation bills if they are proven legally liable for an incident involving their dog.”

One Petplan claim involved an overprotective Border Collie chasing a postman from his garden. “Although the dog did not cause any actual injury, in his rush to escape from the garden, the postman fell over a low wall, injuring his back. Damages for personal injury, loss of earnings and the legal fees of both the third party and the client amounted to £60,000.”

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which bans four breeds of dog, was reviewed by MPs over the summer. This was because figures from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals suggested that since the law came into force, 70% of the fatalities were caused by dogs not prohibited by the legislation.

As legal changes might place more onus on owners, could liability insurance become compulsory?

Further details are awaited, but McNally points out he has handled cases linked to all kinds of breeds, including some such as West Highland terriers and pugs, which are not typically viewed as aggressive. He supports compulsory insurance and would like information stored on microchips – which are mandatory for dogs.

James Pinder, partner at DWF, warns however: “This could lead to over-regulation. Compulsory insurance may possibly cause more problems than it solves, and insuring against infrequent events, like a dog knocking someone over, isn’t likely to make sense for the insured or the insurer.”

Andrew Ball, director at Cliverton, a specialist insurer for animal-related industries, points out:There’s always a risk a dog – even the most docile – can attack or be attacked. There are a number of reasons, from a lack of socialisation and being territorial to natural instincts and fear. They can also cause damage when being ‘playful’, such as chasing sheep.

“Although steps can be taken to lessen the chance of a dog attacking, such as exposing them to different experiences and environments from a young age, risk cannot be completely eradicated.” He says third-party liability cover is always advisable for dog owners.

Dog bite graph

Liability leads

Dog walkers, trainers, behaviourists and therapists are in demand. For them, the benefits of public liability cover are clear.

Walkers, for example, need to transport dogs securely and ensure exercise is safe. Yet some are uninsured and flout local authority rules on how many dogs can be taken out on a single walk (often six, but sometimes four). The risks for something to go wrong are very real.

Garner says:Dog walkers could be held liable in the event that any of the dogs in their care were to escape and cause injury or damage. This could be by the dog owner themselves, or other people, but also by the police.” Penalties include imprisonment or a fine or both.

She adds groomers could face legal action for any injuries or reactions the dog may have to the treatment being provided: “These could be costly claims if successful, especially if the dog then requires treatment by a vet.”

Penalties

You can get an unlimited fine or be sent to prison for up to six months (or both) if your dog is dangerously out of control. You may not be allowed to own a dog in the future and your dog may be destroyed.

If you let your dog injure someone, you can be sent to prison for up to five years or fined (or both). If you deliberately use your dog to injure someone, you could be charged with ‘malicious wounding’.

If you allow your dog to kill someone, you can be sent to prison for up to 14 years or get an unlimited fine (or both).

If you allow your dog to injure an assistance dog (eg a guide dog), you can be sent to prison for up to three years or fined (or both).

Source: gov.uk

Appropriate cover is available, as Ball comments: “It’s essential people working with dogs have public liability insurance. An incident can put you and your business at risk. Cover is available for a number of services, including pet-sitting, kennels, groomers, trainers and pet taxis.

“These types of businesses are working with dogs with different behaviours and needs, day in, day out. So the likelihood of claim is much higher than for dog owners.”

He adds: “There’s a high level of trust associated with these businesses, from caring for pets to staying in customers’ homes, so they should be prepared for every eventuality and ensure their policy is robust.

“Cover includes ‘care, custody and control’ for injuries to dogs caused by professional negligence, non-negligent cover for when a dog is injured and it’s not the business’s fault, loss of key cover for replacement of locks if customers’ house keys are lost or stolen, and public liability insurance, for pet-sitters who stay overnight in customers’ homes.

“Further, any helpers or sub-contractors to the business need covering by employers’ liability insurance.”

Ball adds: “We haven’t seen an increase in the number of claims involving dogs in general, but what we have witnessed is a growing awareness from third parties that they can claim for loss or damage caused by dogs.”

Direct Line for Business has cover aimed at dog walkers and other pet-related businesses on its new online trading system and product manager Gary Holmes comments: “Professional dog walkers or owners of a pet-related business have a unique set of liabilities. They’re not only responsible for the welfare of the animal in their care, but also its behaviour towards other people and pets.

“Walkers need to understand what cover they need and what their potential liability would be. It’s essential they have a written record of instructions from the owner demonstrating an understanding of the animal before agreeing to take it on, including information on its behaviour, training background and dietary requirements. Considerations include: ‘Can a dog be let off the lead? Is it trained to come back on command? What factors are likely to cause it to be frightened or act aggressively?’ 

“It’s good risk management to keep a comprehensive log, recording anything to do with the health or behaviour of the animals on a regular basis and discuss this and any concerns with the owner.” 

He says appropriate cover may include public liability, business equipment cover and employers’ liability.

Pinder adds dog owners using walkers or groomers should check insurance is in place.

banned dogs

Sheep worrying

It might appear dogs walked in urban areas pose more of a risk, but letting a dog run in the countryside is also hazardous.

William Nicholl, head of rural for broker Lycetts, comments: “Thousands of sheep are killed by dogs every year, at an estimated cost to the farming sector of £1.3m, and farmers have been known to suffer financial losses of up to £20,000 for a single incident.”

Animals Act 1971

Where damage is caused by an animal which does not belong to a dangerous species, a keeper of the animal is liable for the damage if:

  • the damage is of a kind which the animal, unless restrained, was likely to cause or which, if caused by the animal, was likely to be severe; and
  • the likelihood of the damage or of its being severe was due to characteristics of the animal which are not normally found in animals of the same species; and
  • those characteristics were known to that keeper.

A person is not liable for any damage which is due wholly to the fault of the person suffering it.

A person is not liable for any damage suffered by a person who has voluntarily accepted the risk thereof.

A person is not liable for any damage caused by an animal kept on any premises to a person trespassing there, if it is proved either:

  • that the animal was not kept there for the protection of persons or property; or
  • that keeping it there for that purpose was not unreasonable.

He continues: “Many dog owners don’t realise their pet does not have to physically attack a sheep to cause harm. The stress from being chased by dogs can cause sheep to die – multiple deaths at a time – and for expectant ewes to abort. Sheep worrying can put even thriving farming operations out of business.”

He adds: “Farmers have become more vocal on social media about the devastating impact of sheep worrying. This focus may also make farmers more inclined to report the incident to police or make an insurance claim.”

Nicholl says rural police forces have asked parliament to make dog attacks a recordable crime, give police power to seize dogs, create a DNA database for offending dogs, and allow harsher sentences for owners.

“Education and preventative measures are needed to stem the rate of attacks, teaching responsible dog ownership, including the importance of keeping dogs on leads when around livestock.

“If the government pushes ahead with police recommendations for stricter laws, dog owners would be liable for more substantial compensation costs. So the need for appropriate cover will become even more pressing.”

There are other ways to reduce bite risks, including in towns and parks. Colour-coded leads can warn if a dog is not friendly. And a letter box cage can protect postmen from nasty injuries.

Should insurers be doing more? Pinder says in the majority of cases, payouts tend to be limited and “there is not a comparatively significant risk when compared with other products”.

Provider Perfect Pet does offer liability-only cover as one of its pet insurance options, but the company didn’t say how big the demand is. Anyway, as Pinder adds, household cover would typically already offer protection.

The growing hunger of claimant lawyers to target any personal injury market means insurers would do well to keep a watchful eye out. If not, there could be some unwelcome claims snapping at their heels.

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