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home / insurance / in the media

Philadelphia Daily News
Oct 07, 2003

by GLORIA CAMPISI

Beware of dog when seeking insurance;

Some firms have 'bad breed' lists
It looked for a while as if Jeff Heisler and his wife, Lisa Trachtenberg, were going to have to make a wrenching decision: Give up their two lovable dogs, or be turned down for homeowners insurance.

Their dogs are pit bulls. And pit bulls give many insurance companies the willies.

The couple's story had a happy ending, but for a while they said they were panicked by the thought they wouldn't be able to get the insurance for the new home they were buying in New Jersey.

Heisler said most of the insurance brokers he and his wife talked to said "flat out, no way."

The couple eventually got insurance from State Farm, one of the insurance companies that doesn't have a "bad breed" list.

This is an ongoing trend among insurance companies faced with the fact that dog bites represent the biggest homeowners payout - $310 million in 2001 - of all claims.

In addition to pit bulls, some companies blacklist Rottweilers, Doberman pinschers, Akitas, chows, Presa Canarios and wolf-hybrids.

It wouldn't matter to such companies that the two dogs Heisler and Trachtenberg own are sweethearts.

Heisler, an engineer from Burlington County, N.J., said: "We don't have any kids. They are kids to us."

The male pit, Hopper, a stray, lost his front leg after an auto accident in 1999. What especially endeared him to Heisler was his attitude.

"He was just so happy all the time," he said. "He didn't really care about the leg. He's just a big goofball."

Heisler and Trachtenberg, a veterinarian, acquired a second pit bull, Jade, in 2000 from an Internet pet-adoption agency. The two dogs are friendly to visitors, love kids and are dedicated to each other, Heisler said.

"They roughhouse together, they wrestle, they take turns knocking each other down."

The couple had no intention of giving them up. As it turned out, they didn't have to, but other pet owners have not been so fortunate.

At least five owners surrendered pit bulls or Rottweilers to the Pennsylvania SPCA's Philadelphia shelter since 1999, citing homeowners insurance problems.

Adoption director Tara Schernecke said a man who turned in his pit bull last year said "his homeowners insurance would be canceled if he kept the dog."

Holly McGurgan, spokeswoman for the Women's Humane Society in Bensalem, said the owners of an Akita brought the dog in recently saying they were giving it up because their insurance company would no longer cover the animal.

"It's a longstanding situation," said Charles Spencer, director of investigations for the Pennsylvania SPCA. "Your dogs may be covered under your current policy, but when you apply for a change of homeowners insurance or a new policy, they will ask you what breed of animal you have.

"It's within their discretion whether they're willing to insure."

Or, he said, companies can require a rider, costing extra for the dog.

Pennsylvania law prohibits insurance companies from using policy language that excludes certain breeds of dogs from coverage, said Melissa Fox, a spokeswoman for the state Insurance Department.

But there's nothing illegal about insurance companies taking breed into consideration.

"It's an underwriting decision of the company," not regulated by the Insurance Department, Fox said.

According to the Web site of the American Kennel Club, Prudential and State Farm do not practice breed exclusion, but others, such as Allstate and Nationwide, have "bad breed" blacklisting policies.

Allstate spokesman Michael Trevino said his company has no "corporate edict" against certain breeds, but regional offices set their own policies.

As far as Nationwide is concerned, spokesman Kenneth Craiglow said "ownership of a dog that appears on our list of vicious breeds, as well as animals with a bite history and trained attack or guard dogs, disqualify an applicant from eligibility under our standards."

A recent deadly dog attack was cited as a "landmark case" by the Insurance Information Institute.

In the well-publicized case a 120-pound Presa Canario, owned by two San Francisco lawyers, fatally mauled their next-door neighbor in the hallway outside her apartment in 2001.

The lawyers went to jail, and the management and owners of the apartment building are being sued for allowing the lawyers to keep the killer dog and another Presa Canario in their apartment.

Another deadly mauling occurred in Wisconsin in February 2002 when six Rottweilers killed a 10-year-old girl visiting a friend.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that 238 people were killed by dogs from 1979 to 1999, half of them by pit bulls and Rottweilers.

A spokeswoman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates there are 50 million pet dogs in the U.S. but the number of those that were pit bulls, Rottweilers or other aggressive breeds was uncertain.

Doug Heller, of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said insurance companies appear to have gotten more discriminating in the past year and a half.

He calls breed exclusion a case of "laziness and greed." He argues that the question of whether to insure dog owners should be done on a case-by-case basis.

Insurance companies have to protect themselves, agreed J. Robert Hunter, of the Consumer Federation of America, "but to say every Rottweiler is a bad dog is nonsense."
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Contact the author at: campisg@phillynews.com


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