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State Farm still Fair Insurer

August 25th, 2005, 02:12 PM
As more dog owners face issues finding insurance State Farm still stands by facts. This story on the radio woke me up this morning. I thought I may of been dreaming that I heard it. It's true.

Insurers barking over dog breed bias bill
Posted: Aug. 20, 2005
The insurance company thinks Caesar is a mixed-breed dog.


In reality, he's a pure-bred American Staffordshire terrier. Most people would simply call him a pit bull.

If the insurance company knew Caesar's true breed, it would deny homeowners coverage to the 30-year-old Milwaukee woman who owns him. Pit bulls are among several dog breeds the insurer won't let customers keep because it has deemed them more likely to bite.

When the woman rescued Caesar as a puppy from an illegal dog-fighting operation in 2004, she was faced with telling the truth and looking for a new insurance company, or convincing the insurer that Caesar is a less-risky type of dog.

"We actually lied to our agent," she said.

The woman's predicament - and that of others who own dogs such as pit bulls and Rottweilers - would disappear in Wisconsin if a bill sponsored by a Racine lawmaker finds favor in the state Legislature.

The bill would prohibit an insurer from denying homeowner's liability coverage because of the breed of dog a person owns, as long as that individual dog has never been in trouble. It also would stop the company from basing premiums on a dog's breed.

Homeowners shouldn't be penalized if their dog, whatever kind it is, has no personal history of biting, said Democratic state Rep. John Lehman.

"Insurance should be based on prior experience with a particular animal rather than a breed," Lehman said.

The Wisconsin Insurance Alliance disagrees, and says it will fight Lehman's bill if it advances from the Assembly's Committee on Insurance and gains any momentum.

Eric Englund, president of the insurance trade group, said that with more than 200 companies selling homeowners insurance in the state, dog owners have plenty of options to find a company that doesn't discriminate over breeds of dogs.

"If the government steps in and says to insurers, 'All dogs are the same,' or 'All dogs don't bite,' or 'You get a first free bite,' those who don't have dogs or have dogs that aren't biters are going to be subsidizing those that do," Englund said. "As a matter of public policy, we don't think that's appropriate."

Wisconsin's most popular property and casualty insurance company - Madison-based American Family Insurance - is among those that won't provide liability coverage to homeowners who keep certain breeds of dogs. Breeds on American Family's banned list: Akita, American pit bull or Staffordshire terrier, chow chow, Rottweiler and any mixed-breed dog that has an element of wolf in its lineage.

"We have found through our own claims experience and through data from the Centers for Disease Control that some dogs are just more prone to biting - to generating liability claims - than others," said American Family spokesman Steve Witmer. "Our approach is that we simply don't provide homeowners insurance to people who own those breeds of dogs."

Witmer said that even without insuring pit bulls and breeds it considers more likely to bite, American Family, which covers about one of every four homes in Wisconsin, pays out between $5 million and $6 million a year in dog liability claims.

25% of liability claims
Nationally, dog bites accounted for about 25% of all homeowner's insurance liability - not property - claims in 2003, according to the most recent data from the New York City-based Insurance Information Institute. The dog bite claims totaled $322 million, the group said.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control study analyzed information for 2001 and found that more than 368,000 people in the U.S. were treated in hospital emergency rooms for non-fatal dog bite-related injuries that year. A nationwide tally of dog bites that CDC took in 1994 still is presented by various groups as the annual average of bites: 4.7 million a year.

Yet another CDC study said that among 300 human deaths related to dog bites between 1979 and 1998, pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers were involved more often than other breeds.

However, bad publicity and statistics haven't deterred some insurers, such as State Farm Insurance, from providing coverage to people who own breeds of dogs that others consider more risky.

"We don't discriminate against breeds of dogs," said State Farm spokeswoman Kelly Savage.

State Farm agents will ask what type of dog a potential customer owns and take note of how it behaves when they pay a visit to check out the property before providing insurance coverage, she said. No dog is considered automatically a trouble-maker based on its breed, she said.

Many dog owners bristle at the fact that insurance companies consider some dog breeds bad risks, saying behavior has more to do with how the owner has treated and trained the dog.

Lehman said he wrote the bill after hearing from one of his constituents, Julie Totsch of Racine, about breed discrimination. Totsch doesn't own one of the controversial breeds (her dog, Skywalker, is an American Eskimo), but said it isn't right to deny insurance based on the broad reputation of a breed.

"If they are worried about insuring them, then require them to attend obedience classes before you will insure the home," Totsch said. "But they are just arbitrarily saying, 'Oh, you've got a Rottweiler and that's dangerous,' or 'You've got a pit bull and that's dangerous.' I don't think that's fair."

Marylou Mäder of the Badger State Rottweiler Fanciers said it's about time someone tried to challenge insurance companies' prohibition of coverage or higher premiums because of breed.

"We don't understand how they can get away with it," Mäder said. "And yet they continue to insure 16-year-olds to get into cars and drive."

The owner of Caesar, who does not want to be identified because her insurer wouldn't renew coverage if it found out she had a pit bull, said she's leery of looking for a new insurance company. She said she's heard of dog owners who shopped around and were dropped by their existing insurer before they could get a new one.

She said she'd rather take the chance that well-behaved Caesar will never have a biting incident that results in a liability claim. But she can't say for certain that will never happen.

"Anything with a mouth can bite," she said.