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Puzzler: Dog Attacks on LA Mail Carriers Drop but Dog-Bite Insurance Claims are Skyrocketing!

ANIMAL WATCH-The good news for National Dog Bite Prevention Week (May 15-21) is that Los Angeles is no longer the USPS ‘Dog-Bite Capital,” a distinction garnered in 2014 from 77 dog bites to US Postal Service mail carriers. L.A. descended to fourth place in 2015 at 55 bites. Still too many, but we are trending in the right direction. 

The bad news is that more than one-third of the $570 million paid nationally in homeowners’ insurance liability claims in 2015 were for dog bites and dog-related injuries, and Californians filed 1,684--the largest number in the country, according to State Farm.  

More disturbing information for ratepayers (whether or not they own a dog), is the Insurance Information Institute report that:         

  • While the number of dog-bite claims decreased 7.2 percent nationwide in 2015, the average cost per claim was up 16 percent. 
  • The average cost per dog-related claim nationally rose more than 94 percent from 2003 to 2015, with costs skyrocketing this past year. 
  • The national average payout per claim rose from $32,072 in 2014 to $37 214 in 2015.
  • California dog-bite claims cost an average of $44,983 each--topped only by Arizona, with only 393 claims, but an astounding average payout of $56,654. 

This does not bode well for the future of dog-bite insurance for Californians. 

LA Animal Services’ GM Brenda Barnette instituted what some consider an overly stringent “dangerous dog policy” after a February 2, 2015, exposé, LA Puts Dangerous Dogs Back on the Streets, by NBC News Investigator Joel Grover on laxness in LAAS handling of dog (and people) maulings in the city, and the current Commission has taken a much stronger stand on revoking the license of dogs where the owner has appealed a “dangerous dog” declaration. 

But, it will take several years to determine if that has actually influenced the decrease in attacks on mail carriers (or residents in general) -- because LA Animal Services does not keep a record of dog-bite reports within the city. 

Nationwide attacks on US Postal Service’s carriers are definitely not headed in the right direction, with stats showing: 5,581 bites in 2013; 5,767 in 2014; and a staggering leap to 6,549 in 2015. 

Safe mail delivery is important to us personally and to our national economy. Along with electronic bill-paying, communicating by e-mail, and other technical advances, more and more Angelenos (made captive in our own homes by traffic congestion) and shoppers everywhere, are enjoying the convenience and stress reduction of shopping on-line. 

This requires home delivery by USPS and other carriers, until drones have replaced humans. And, unlike letters, most parcel deliveries must be made directly to the door, not just a mail box. This requires entering the property and adds to the responsibility of dog owners to assure safety. 

Dog owners who believe their pet loves everybody must come to the realization that their “furry family member” can bite and cause serious or fatal damage. Liability is not limited to harmful, deliberate attacks. 

Dog owners are liable for any injuries and damages caused by their dog if they have been negligent in confining the dog or keeping it under control. This includes an over-exuberant dog who knocks someone down after escaping from the inside of a home or yard or chases a person who falls and is seriously hurt, or a dog that runs into the street and causes an accident. 

California is a strict-liability state, and does not have a “one-free-bite” rule. This means that a person injured by a dog attack or bite does not have to prove that the dog owner was negligent or that the owner had knowledge of the dog’s vicious or aggressive tendencies…the injured victim only needs to establish that the bite or injury resulted in damages. 

The dog owner is automatically deemed responsible for expenses and damages to the victim, whether or not the dog has previously bitten or attacked another individual. (The only exception to this strict liability is if the individual bitten was trespassing on the dog owner’s property.) 

Under California’s dog bite statute, a dog owner is liable for any and all damages and injuries suffered by the individual bitten by the dog, as long as the individual was on public property or was lawfully in a private place. A person is considered to be lawfully on private property if his or her presence was performing a duty enforced by state laws or the postal regulations of the United States, or if the dog bite victim was on the property upon the dog owner’s implied or expressed invitation,Los Angeles Dog Bite Lawyer explains. 

Dog-bite cases are receiving increasing empathy toward victims. This created what Merritt Clifton, editor of Animals/24-7, calls, “legal and political history” on January 12, 2015, when Erin Ingram, an eight-year-old victim of a pit bull attack which resulted in loss of part of one of her arms, losing partial use of the other arm and serious injuries to both ankles, was awarded $72 million by the jury. (DeKalb County, GA, senior judge Matthew Robins overruled the award of $72 million and instead awarded Ingram and her family almost $37-million, Clifton reports.) 

It is obvious from the tremendous upswing in costs, that insurance companies will increasingly be raising rates and/or placing restrictions on issuing policies, which is another incentive to be sure pets are well-trained and carefully confined or controlled. Many attacks occur in homes and involve someone the dog already knows. The highest numbers of bites are to children. Experts agree that no child should be left alone or unsupervised with any dog. 

The Insurance Information Institute advises that the dog owner is responsible for all damages exceeding the liability limits of a homeowner or renter policy (typically $100,000/$300,000) and addresses the issue of dog breeds: 

Some insurers do not ask the breed of a dog owned when writing or renewing homeowners insurance and do not track the breed of dogs involved in dog bite incidents. However, once a dog has bitten someone, it poses an increased risk. In that instance, the insurance company may charge a higher premium, non-renew the homeowner’s insurance policy or exclude the dog from coverage.

“Some insurers are taking steps to limit their exposure to such losses. Some companies require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites, while others charge more for owners of breeds such as pit bulls and Rottweilers and others are not offering insurance to dog owners at all,” III.org explains.

USPS Goes Tech with ‘Bytes vs. Bites’ 

USPS is introducing technology to keep carriers safe. As part of National Dog Bite Prevention Week, the Postal Service announced two measures to prevent dog attacks, an issue that affected more than 6,500 employees last year. 

The program, called “Bytes vs. Bites,” was introduced by USPS Safety Director Linda De Carlo, who outlined that, effective May 13 on usps.com’s Package Pickup application, customers will be asked to indicate whether there is a dog at their address when they schedule a package pickup. 

A second step goes into effect later this spring. 

“The Mobile Delivery Devices that letter carriers use to scan packages to confirm delivery will include a feature that allows carriers to indicate the presence of a dog at an individual address. This is especially helpful to substitutes who fill-in for letter carriers on their days off,” she states. 

The Postal Service provides these tips for safe and uninterrupted delivery: 

If a letter carrier delivers mail or packages to your front door, place your dog in a separate room and close that door before opening the front door. Dogs have been known to burst through screen doors or plate-glass windows to get at strangers. 

Parents should remind their children not to take mail directly from letter carriers in the presence of the family pet, as the dog may view the letter carrier handing mail to a child as a threatening gesture. 

DeCarlo stressed that employee safety is a priority for USPS, “If a letter carrier feels threatened by a vicious dog or if a dog is running loose, the owner may be asked to pick up the mail at the Post Office until the carrier is assured the pet has been restrained. If the dog is roaming the neighborhood, the pet owner’s neighbors may be asked to pick up their mail at the Post Office as well.” 

Owning a dog is an on-going, serious responsibility. Los Angeles, the self-proclaimed ‘humane capital,’ should not be on the national USPS dog-bite list! These tips are not just important for safety of delivery personnel but good reminders for keeping pets safe and reducing the chance of your dog becoming another insurance statistic with potentially devastating consequences for all.

(Animal activist Phyllis M. Daugherty writes for CityWatch and is a contributing writer to opposingviews.com.  She lives in Los Angeles.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw