Beware: Insurers keep a dog blacklist
By Blair Anthony Robertson -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Thursday, June 13, 2002
Bear is fluffy and about 45 pounds and when a visitor approaches the
front door, she lets out a half-hearted bark before scampering away
for a nap behind an overstuffed chair in the living room.
But this dog, rescued from the streets by a family 11 years ago, is
at the center of a controversy that has put her owners on the verge
of eviction and the landlord in danger of losing his liability insurance.
And it's all because Bear, whose favorite activity of the day is going
for a ride in the car, is part chow chow, one of several breeds on the
insurance company's list of dangerous -- and uninsurable -- dogs.
The list, based on dog-bite fatality statistics from 1979 to 1998,
has been used by several companies to deny or cancel coverage of landlords
and individual homeowners who have pit bulls, German shepherds, Rottweilers,
malamutes, Doberman pinschers, even Saint Bernards. Such lists have
gained a high profile since the Jan. 26, 2001, mauling death of Diane
Whipple in San Francisco and reflect an apparently growing fear that
dogs can be a major financial liability. Whipple was killed by a Presa
Canario, a breed also on some blacklists.
Ten to 20 people die from dog bites each year in the United States,
the majority of them children.
Jacquelyn Huls, who has lived with her husband and two children in
the same three-bedroom rental home the past 16 years, says she would
rather move than give up her dog Bear. The family lives in the Meadowview
area in south Sacramento.
"She's like one of the children," Huls said. "If I'm sad or upset,
she gives me comfort. She goes for rides with me in the car. You should
see her when my husband comes home and she hears the car."
George Barnes Jr., the owner of that home and 21 other rentals, says
he has little choice. Three of his rentals have been damaged by fires
in the past two years. After the third fire, his insurance company dropped
"I had to apply for additional insurance and was rejected a number
of times," said Barnes, who finally found an insurer through a broker
in Southern California.
The company, which he declined to name, initially approved his coverage
of the rental homes. On his application, Barnes had listed, among other
things, that a dog lived at the Huls' residence. In late March, he received
a follow-up call from the company asking the breed of the dog.
Days later, he received notice in the mail that his insurance on that
house had been canceled. To be reinstated, Barnes says he was forced
to tell the family that the dog had to go.
"I do feel bad. But what choice do I have?" Barnes said.
The Huls family received a 30-day notice to move out and is frantically
looking for a new rental in a tight housing market. Jacquelyn Huls says
she has called about 200 places without luck. The family has two other
mixed-breed dogs that stay in the back yard. Huls says she will try
to find new homes for them. Bear, on the other hand, has the run of
the house and is a dear family pet.
Several experts in the rental real estate market say such sticking
points between tenants and landlords are often resolved when the landlord
requires the tenant to obtain renters insurance. Barnes did not do that
with Huls. After The Bee asked him about it, he said he called his new
insurer but was told his liability policy would be canceled if the dog
After the series of fires, Barnes says he now requires his tenants
to have renters and liability insurance and has agreed to pay for such
policies -- usually $25 to $30 a month -- for the first six months.
As for the "bad dog" lists, insurance companies have varying views
on the matter.
State Farm does not discriminate according to breed but is aware of
the industry practice, according to Amelia Duer, a corporate spokeswoman
"We believe there are good and bad dogs of all breeds. We don't have
a blacklist," she said. "We look at claims experience. We ask people
from the beginning if they have a dog that has bitten anyone."
Such screening measures are not necessarily new in the insurance industry
but have generated more attention since the San Francisco mauling case,
according to Candysse Miller, executive director of the Insurance Information
Network of California. Insurers pay out $310 million a year in dog-bite
liability claims, she said.
She said Nationwide Insurance is one of several companies that lists
breeds it will not insure. A Nationwide spokesman did not return a call
Amy Denise, editor of the online industry publication Insure.com,
said it's hard to pin down which companies have blacklists.
"Industry sources will confirm there are dog blacklists," she said,
"but if you call specific companies, they will say, 'Oh, no, we don't
have a list.' "
Daniel McCoy, a local attorney who specializes in dog-bite cases,
says insurance companies "are obviously trying to limit their exposure
by refusing to insure some dogs."
"The public is tired of big, bad mean dogs," he said. "I would say
a third to half of my caseload is two breeds -- pit bulls and Rottweilers."
Advocates of those breeds, however, say such dogs are dangerous only
if they are mistreated or not properly socialized with humans and other
McCoy says he rarely has won a case against a landlord in a dog bite
case because the law requires him to show, among other things, that
the landlord knew of a previous bite and acted unreasonably in preventing
the next one. He also said getting the tenants to have renters insurance
"keeps the landlord out of the equation."
But that is little comfort to Jacquelyn Huls and her family. By all
accounts, Bear hasn't attacked anyone. Yet, she is seen as too great
a risk by the insurance company simply because of her bloodlines.
She slept behind the living room chair during a recent visit -- until
Jacquelyn Huls mentioned something about taking a ride in the car.
Then she wagged her tail.
About the Writer
The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson can be reached at (916) 321-1099
Dog breeds targeted by insurers, based on dogs responsible for the
greatest number of bite- related fatalities from 1979-1998 reported
by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Source: Insurance Information Institut
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