Insurer’s Liability for Dog Bites to Two People in Florida

In a recent case an insurer filed a motion for rehearing on a dog bite case. The case arose out of a living situation in which a woman and her two sons lived with the woman’s boyfriend and his two dogs.

One day as the woman was dressing one of her sons, she and her boyfriend heard the other son screaming. One of the dogs was biting the other son in the spare bedroom. They tried to get the dog to let go, but when the dog let go of the boy, she bit the woman in the face, injuring her too.

The boyfriend’s home was insured under a homeowner’s policy. The policy offered personal liability coverage to the boyfriend for $100,000 per occurrence “Occurrence” was defined as an accident that resulted in bodily or property injury.

The woman sued the boyfriend for damages. The insurer filed a complaint for declaratory relief against the couple. It claimed the damages claimed by the woman were subject to the same occurrence limit as the injuries experienced by her son. Her son had already received $100,000 for his injuries. The insurer wanted the court to enter an order that said the dog attacks against the son and his mother were one occurrence.

Both the woman and boyfriend filed answers claiming these were separate occurrences. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted the insurer’s motion and found the dog bite injuries were part of one occurrence.

The woman appealed. She argued that the dog bites were sustained in two different occurrences. The appellate court explained that in Florida, the Supreme Court has adopted a “cause theory.” This means that the court must look at the cause of someone’s injuries to decide how many occurrences there are under an insurance policy. It applied the cause theory to this case.

The appellate court explained the inquiry is whether there is one proximate, uninterrupted, and continuing cause that leads to all of the injuries and damages.

The court looked at an earlier case in which two sheriffs responded to a house where three shots had been fired. The first shot hit an officer. The third shot hit another. The second shot hit both. The trial court in that case held that each blast was a separate occurrence.

The insurer argued that it was all one occurrence because there was one instrumentality, one location, and the injuries occurred in a very short time period. Similarly, in another gunshot case, the federal district court found that a shooting with multiple shots was one occurrence. However, the Florida Supreme Court found that each shooting of a separate victim had to be considered a separate occurrence. It explained that each shooting was distinguishable in time and space.

The appellate court reasoned that ambiguous provisions are to be construed against an insurer. In this case, the language was ambiguous as to “occurrence.” Therefore, an occurrence had to be considered as each uninterrupted dog attack on a separate victim. Even there was one instrumentality (the dog), the biting of the son was separate from the biting of his mother.

If you are seriously hurt due to a dog bite or animal attack, contact the knowledgeable Florida personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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