Pitbulls, Maryland Law, and Homeowner’s Insurance

dog breed homeowners insuranceMaryland made the right call by getting rid of the “one bite rule,” which created an assumption that dog owners know their dogs can bite.  In doing so, the Maryland legislature effectively nixed a Maryland Supreme Court ruling that said pit bulls are inherently dangerous and imposed strict liability for owners and landlords.

At the end of the day though, insurance companies are most interested in these sorts of decisions, because they’re the ones paying out dog-bite claims.  And although the dog breeds may not be as big an issue for Maryland legislators anymore, your insurance company may still discriminate and charge you more based on the dog you have.

Yes, I’m mostly talking about pit bulls.  I agree not all pit bulls are dangerous. Many are well-behaved and loving pets. But because of the breed’s reputation, owners of pit bulls often face discrimination and prejudice from landlords, insurance companies, and others.

Types of Insurance for Dogs

Before we get into the controversial breed discrimination issues that make so many of you understandably furious, let’s take a quick peek at what type of insurance you can get for your dog:

  • Liability insurance – This insurance provides coverage for damages or injuries caused by the dog to other people or their property. This type of insurance is recommended for all dog owners, especially those with breeds known to be aggressive.
  • Health insurance – This insurance covers the cost of veterinary care for your dog, including routine check-ups, vaccinations, and emergency medical procedures.
  • Wellness insurance – This insurance covers the cost of preventive care for your dog, including routine check-ups, vaccinations, and other wellness services.
  • Accident insurance – This insurance covers unexpected accidents, such as a broken leg or an ingested foreign object.
  • Behavioral insurance – This insurance covers the cost of treatment for behavioral issues in dogs, such as aggression or separation anxiety.

The primary focus of this post is liability insurance for when your dog causes harm to another dog, person, or property.

Breed Specific Discrimination

In 2012, almost 11 years ago, the Maryland Court of Appeals said that Pit Bulls were inherently dangerous. Only one insurance company, Nationwide, excluded dog bites from coverage if they came from specific breeds.  The list of “blacklisted” breeds was:

  • Alaskan Malamute;
  • American Staffordshire Terrier, American Pit Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier (“Pit Bull breeds);
  • Akita;
  • Boerbel;
  • Chow Chow;
  • Doberman Pinscher;
  • English Bull Terrier;
  • German Shepherd;
  • Kyiapso;
  • Mastiff, American Bondogge Mastiff, Neapolitan Mastiff;
  • Presa Canario (Dogo Canario, Canary Dog, Peroo Basto, Verdino);
  • Rottweiler;
  • Siberian Husky;
  • Wolf Hybrid; and
  • any dog that is a mix of an ineligible dog breed

Three other companies didn’t offer coverage for homeowners with these breeds, and one required applicants to go through “further review” before offering coverage.

Naturally, dog owners, specifically pit bull owners, which tend to be activists and true believers, were not pleased.  So much so, the Maryland Insurance Administration received complaints from people who were denied coverage because of their dog’s breed.  This prompted the General Assembly to actually do something.  In 2013, the Maryland Legislature passed a law forcing insurance companies to let potential and current policyholders know about any “specific breed” discrimination in their policies.

Insurance companies gave a little.  Breed-specific discrimination was relaxed, with fewer companies refusing to insure homeowners with “blacklisted” dogs, showing a trend away from this practice.  Considering that Maryland did away with breed-specific liability, this makes sense.  And before doing so, Maryland canvassed other states with similar laws to get a feel for the impact of breed-neutral liability on homeowners’ insurance.  Only one state said they expressly prohibit insurance companies from blacklisting certain types of dogs, while the rest let it happen.

What Breed Discrimination Means for Dog Owners?

Maryland only protects dog owners from denials of coverage here. Nothing in the law would stop an insurance company from charging higher premiums. The assumption that your dog will only cost you if he/she bites someone is no longer the case. You could have the friendliest Pit Bull or German Shepard in the world. But your insurance company could hike your premiums because your dog is a blacklisted breed. It’s also a little disconcerting that the doggie blacklist includes mixed-breeds of any of the listed dogs. If you have a dog that is 99% lab and 1% German Shepard, the insurance company could still charge you more.

As unfair as it may seem, it makes sense from a lawyer’s perspective.  People have prejudices about breeds like pit bulls, and those prejudices make their way to the jury box.  Those juries are more likely to award higher damages than the insurance companies have to payout.  But the dog owner still has to face higher premiums even when their pet is a friendly family dog.

blacklisted dog breeds

Can I Go Without Dog Owner’s Insurance?

One option for dog owners is to go without insurance. How much risk are you taking? The average payout for settlements and verdicts in these cases is approximately $30,000, excluding attorneys’ fees that insurance would ordinarily cover. But that number does not fairly characterize the risk, right? A large verdict in a dog bite case can be a seven-figure verdict.

The first thing to do is check to see if your dog is covered under your homeowner’s policy.  If she is, just confirm with your agent your policy limits for such a claim.  If you have assets and your dog is not covered under your homeowner’s policy, you must consider ensuring you have the insurance you need to protect your assets.

Whenever you do not have insurance coverage (or not enough insurance coverage), you are putting yourself at risk.  It is your decision how much risk you want to endure.

Does Maryland Law Discriminate Against Pitbulls in 2021?

In Tracey v. Solesky, the Maryland Court of Appeals establishes a new law for a landlord who has knowledge of a tenant/dog owner’s pit bull or cross-bred pit bulldog.

There was an uproar. So the Maryland Legislature enacted § 3-1901.2 which abrogated the Maryland high court’s holding in Tracey. Section 3-1901 raised the bar on the dog owner’s liability with a rebuttable presumption that the owner knew the dog was vicious. But for landlords, the statute maintained the common law liability that existed before Tracey v. Solesky.

What does the statute say?  Maryland Courts & Judicial Proceedings Code § 3-1901.2 governs the liability for damages caused by dogs in the state of Maryland. The law provides a rebuttable presumption of the owner’s knowledge if the dog causes personal injury or death. The evidence that the dog caused the injury or death creates a rebuttable presumption that the owner knew or should have known that the dog had vicious or dangerous propensities.  Basically, taking us back to what had long been the law of Maryland before Tracey.

However, the judge may not rule as a matter of law that the presumption has been rebutted before the jury returns a verdict in a jury trial. The common law of liability relating to attacks by dogs against humans that existed on April 1, 2012, is retained as to a person other than the owner without regard to the breed or heritage of the dog. The owner of a dog is liable for any injury, death, or loss to person or property caused by the dog while the dog is running at large.   But there is a big exception for cases when the harm was caused to a person who was committing a criminal offense or teasing, tormenting, abusing, or otherwise provoking the dog.

Are Some Dogs Illegal in Maryland?

There are no dogs that are illegal under Maryland law.  So there are no banned dog breeds.  But some counties place restrictions on the type of dog you can have.  See, for example, this Prince George’s County ordinance limiting pit bull ownership. This ruling was affirmed a few years ago but this law making pit bull illegal is now being challenged in federal court. The lawsuit points out that the process of determining whether a dog is a ‘pit bull’ is based upon a completely unscientific system, there can be no rational relationship between the purpose of the ordinance – to protect us all from pit bills – and the classification in the ordinance.

Advice on Getting Dog Insurance to Protect Against Liability

Here are some thoughts if you are looking for insurance for your pitbull or dog:

  • If you own a home or rent an apartment, your homeowners or renters insurance may provide some liability coverage for dog-related incidents, including bites. But many insurance companies have breed-specific restrictions, and pit bulls are often on these lists due to concerns about these dogs.  But the exclusions are not just for pit bulls. Other breeds may also be restricted or excluded.  These restrictions vary by insurance company and location.
  • If you do not have coverage, some insurance companies specialize in providing coverage for dogs, including those with breeds that may be considered high-risk. These companies may be more willing to insure pit bulls and other dogs deemed to be at higher risk. Get more than one quote.
  • Umbrella insurance policies offer additional liability coverage that can extend beyond the limits of your homeowners or renters’ insurance. This can be especially useful for Pitbull owners to provide extra protection.
  • Don’t fudge anything in your insurance application.  It will come back to bite you.

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