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When Is a Dog Bite a Car Accident?

As his friend and former roommate got into the driver seat of his car, client got into the passenger seat. In the rear was the driver's dog. As the driver turned on the ignition, client turned to say hello to the dog when it lunged and bit him on his face. His face was pretty badly bitten.

Shortly on the heels of my notifying the driver's insurance company of a claim, the insurance company wrote back denying the claim saying that a dog bite is not an injury arising out of an automobile accident.

Insurance policies typically cover injuries caused by an accident that arise out of the ownership, maintenance or use of the motor vehicle. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has interpreted such insurance clauses to mean that the injury must “originate from, grow out of, or flow from the use of the vehicle.” And the term “use” has been interpreted to mean “use of the automobile in its inherent nature as a vehicle.”

Insurance coverage is denied where the use of the car has been merely incidental and not a normal use of the car. For example when an assailant used the windshield of a car to steady his gun and shoot the gun, the court ruled that this was not a normal use for which a vehicle is intended. It is with such court decisions in mind that the insurance company declined my dog bite claim.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has decided two automobile insurance coverage questions involving dog bites. In the Lebroke case, the court ruled that there was no insurance coverage for dog bite that occurred while the claimant was attempting to load brochures into the insured's automobile. It reasoned that the mere fact that an accident takes place in or near an automobile does not mean the accident was and “auto accident.”

In the Wilson case, a taxi driver closed his car door on a dog's tail. The dog lunged toward the claimant and bit her face. The court reiterated that there must be a causal connection between the use the vehicle and the resulting harm in order for there to be insurance coverage. The court concluded that such a causal connection existed because the injury was the result of the taxi driver's closing the car door on the dog's tail.

A judge is going to have to decide my case and whether or not there is a sufficient connection between the injury and the automobile. Client maintains that while he lived with his former roommate he was always friendly with the dog, that he had never been in a car with the dog before, and that it was the starting of the engine of the car that startled that the dog and caused it to react.

Francis G. Murphy