This blog has previously addressed the impact of non-disclosures or inaccurate answers on an application for an insurance policy. If the information would have influenced the decision to provide coverage or impacted the premium, this might provide a basis for denying a claim. One example of where this issue arises involves non-disclosure of dog ownership when applying for a homeowner’s insurance policy. A recent appellate court decision by a Massachusetts court, Vt. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Eldridge, 76 Mass. App. Ct. 1122 (2010 WL 1253170) (unpublished opinion) held that nondisclosure of dog ownership on an application for homeowner’s insurance constituted a material misrepresentation that voided the policy.
The policyholders answered no to a question on their homeowner’s insurance policy that asked: “Are there any animals or exotic pets kept on the premises?” The policyholders owned two bull mastiffs that they kept on the property. The trial court found that the question was ambiguous because it could have been understood to be asking only about exotic pets rather than cats, dogs, fish and other ordinary household pets. The appellate court rejected this claim finding that the failure to disclose the bull mastiffs constituted a misrepresentation.
The court found that the nondisclosure was material and permitted the insurance carrier to rescind the policy. Under applicable law in the state, misstatements are material only if they involve actual intent to deceive or an increased risk of loss. The court further clarified that information is material if it would have influenced the underwriter in issuing the policy or assessing the character and degree of risk.
The insurance company received notice that the policyholders owned the dogs before it received notice of the claim regarding the dog attack. Once the insurance company learned that the policyholders owned the dogs, the insurer informed the policyholders that the policy would not have been issued had the insured’s disclosed their ownership of the dogs. Based on this reasoning and the notice to the policyholder prior to receiving notice of the claim, the appellate court found the non-disclosure material, entitling the insurance company to void the policy and deny the claim.
Dog bite claims are one of the most common liability claims against homeowner’s insurance policies, so consumers applying for a policy should never misrepresent dog ownership. While the disclosure might increase a policyholder’s premiums, the failure to disclose ownership of dogs can essentially void coverage. Approximately one-third of all homeowner’s policy claims involve dog bite injuries, which amounted to about 16,500 claims during a recent 12 month period. The total amount paid out on these claims was $489 million.
If you are facing a liability claim and your homeowner’s insurance company is refusing to defend you against the claim or to cover damages, we can answer your questions about your rights. My law firm has extensive experience and has acheieved results for policyholders in claims disputes in Miami and throughout Florida. The Law Firm of J.P. Gonzalez-Sirgo, P.A. offers free consultations and case evaluations. No Recovery, No Lawyer Fees. Call 305-461-1095 or Toll Free 1-866-71-CLAIM.