If your dog bites someone, man's best friend instantly becomes a physical and financial enemy and you had better take decisive steps to prevent future incidents or your liabilities could soar.
Canine experts say once a dog has bitten someone, the animal poses an increased risk and to compensate for that risk, 70 percent of insurers won't renew a homeowner's policy -- even after one bite claim -- according to Insurance Information Network of California (IINC).
"We decided that there was not simply one action which was the intent in implied malice, [but] that it was a series of actions, a series of failures to heed warnings, a series of careless taking of the dogs out and allowing them to lunge at people, that they had fallen into a pattern of actions which were inevitably leading to this result," said jury foreman Don Newton, 64, during a press conference following the verdicts.
In the Los Angeles trial, a location chosen because of heavy media coverage in San Francisco, jurors agreed with prosecutors that Marjorie Knoller and her husband Robert Noel had failed to address more than 30 warnings about their dogs' behavior, including reports of incidents in which the animals lunged at people or bared their teeth. Their dogs, Presa canarios "Bane" and "Hera," were euthanized after fatally mangling neighbor Diane Whipple in the hallway of her San Francisco apartment building.
"(Knoller) was not really heeding any of the warnings that had been given," Newton said. "It could have happened at any time, and that was malice. This was a dangerous situation that was set up by her and her husband's actions, and it led to the death of Diane Whipple."
Knoller was convicted of second-degree murder. Both were convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Both were also convicted of owning a mischievous animal who kills, which is now a felony in California, thanks to immediate legislative reaction to the Whipple attack.
Washington, D.C. based Centers for Disease Control says the breeds of dogs most prone to attack are Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, Doberman Pinschers, Chows, Great Danes, St. Bernards and Akitas.
Dogs bite more than 4.7 million humans a year, more than half of them are kids and the most frequent target is their face, according to DogBiteLaw.com, the Web site of Los Angeles attorney Kenneth Phillips, profiled by Time magazine as "California's leading dog-bite lawyer".
Dog bites force nearly a million victims to seek medical attention and they account for one-third of all liability claims on home owner's insurance policies to the tune of about $1 billion a year paid in claims, according to IINC.
Home owners are financially liable for dog attacks and most home owners and renters policies provide for $100,000 to $300,000 in coverage for liability claims, IINC says. Any amount over the coverage limit is the home owner's responsibility and a court suit could quickly surpass coverage limits.
Most states have laws that make dog owners liable if their dog causes injury -- not just bites. The laws are "strict liability" statutes that impose liability without proving fault -- an injured person does not have to prove that the dog owner did anything wrong, according to Berkeley attorney Mary Randolph, author of "Dog Law" (Nolo.com $21.95).
That's because it's an animal. It has teeth. It can bite.
"The theory behind these laws is that anyone who has a dog should be responsible for any damage or injury it causes. Period. It doesn't matter that the owner was careful with the dog, or didn't know it would hut anyone, or conscientiously tired to keep it from injuring anyone," says Randolph.
Preventing dog problems
To prevent dog bites, experts advise: