Following increased pet ownership during the pandemic, pet-centric public liability claims could be on the up – commentators believe fraud in this area is unlikely, despite policyholder feedback

The UK Pet Insurance Market Report 2021, published by global market intelligence agency Mintel in September 2021, revealed that less than half of pet owners have pet insurance – however, it’s not just vets’ bills that can bite those not covered.

Dog insurance typically includes at least £1m of public liability cover against dogs causing damage or injury to other people or property. So, those without it could potentially lose their shirts.

Changes in 2014 to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 means that owners whose dogs are deemed to be out of control - even in their own homes - can be found liable simply if someone fears they might get bitten, even if no bite actually occurs.

Furthermore, the most likely potential claimant is visiting households every day - with policyholders’ post.

Royal Mail claims that its workers experience 33 dog attacks every week, based on its 2020/21 statistics, equating to 1,690 dog attacks over the course of the year.

Although this is less than the 2,445 dog attacks reported in 2019/20, thanks to parcels being left on doorsteps during the Covid-19 pandemic, numbers could be set to increase - especially as pet ownership rocketed during the national lockdowns and many newer puppies may not be adequately socialised or trained.

For example, the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association found that 3.2 million households in the UK acquired a new pet since the start of the pandemic, according to its February 2021 pet owner survey.

Untruthful claims

Postal workers receive no shortage of encouragement from personal injury lawyers to make a claim against pet owners for dog attacks.

For example, UnionLine, which handles personal injury claims for the Communication Workers Union (CWU), has a compensation culture focused website, issuing invitations like: “If you have been injured by a dog in the last three years, you may be able to make a claim.”

Worryingly, not all claims made are entirely genuine. Helen Yates, a 45-year-old writer who lives near Hexham in Northumberland, had to shell out £9,350 last December to settle out of court for an incident in 2018 she believes was caused by someone – possibly a delivery person – leaving open the gate to her fully-enclosed back garden.

Her two dogs, Dave, a nine-year-old pocket beagle, and Boomerang, a six-month-old cockapoo, escaped and barked at a postal worker, who subsequently slipped and injured his elbow.

Unfortunately, only Boomerang was covered by pet insurance because Dave’s policy had been prohibitively costly to renew due to his age and a range of medical problems, which resulted in policy exclusions. But it was Dave who the claim was made against.

Yates told Insurance Times: “The initial statement was riddled with errors and didn’t even say I had two dogs. It claimed the postal worker had been bitten, but the story was then changed when I challenged this. My elderly neighbours were also hassled by the claimant and his friends to provide witness statements and appear in court.

“My solicitor and the barrister involved said I had a strong case, but warned that the judgment could still go against me if I got a judge who was not a dog lover.

“Because UnionLine doesn’t fix its legal costs, it could have cost me tens of thousands of pounds. So, I decided to settle.”

Anecdotally, one of Yates’ friends experienced a similar situation involving a postal worker. In this case, the claim was covered by insurance, but it resulted in higher insurance premiums.

“She wanted to challenge the claim as she knew the postal worker hadn’t been bitten,” Yates continued.

“The dog jumped up and got her paw stuck in the trousers of the postie, who then sued [the dog’s owner] via UnionLine, saying she’d been bitten and including photos of her bruise.

“[The owner] didn’t find out she was being sued until six months after the event, which made it more difficult to disprove the claim and her insurer said the case wasn’t worth defending as it was only for a few hundred pounds.”

Owner responsibility

UnionLine declined to comment for this piece and Royal Mail would only issue a bland statement. Nevertheless, the CWU did not hold back.

Dave Joyce, national health, safety and environment officer at the CWU, said: “I violently disagree with the idea that postal workers are creating a claims culture.

“Any irresponsible owners deserve to face the consequences of their actions or inactivity and it’s perverse that anyone could say that lawyers helping injured people are at fault.

“I can assure you that no postal worker wants to get attacked and injured by a dog and it’s hard to get fraudulent claims with dog bites as you can see the bite. We just want owners to be responsible.”

However, Joyce emphasised that the CWU wants all pet owners to have insurance “because it creates a heartbreaking situation when someone is badly injured, but there is no point in prosecuting the dog owner because they live on benefits and have no assets”.

He continued: “It’s the postal workers who are the victims here.

“The psychological and physical effects of attacks are sometimes severe enough to prevent them from carrying on working. We’ve even had around 500 [postal workers] with fingers bitten clean off during the last five years. “

Barking up the wrong tree?

Feedback from other parcel delivery firms was not extensive enough to conclude that the dog attack numbers Royal Mail claims to experience are disproportionately high.

DPD, for example, reported that such attacks were not something it has a problem with. Hermes and Amazon declined to comment.

Insurance Times requested comment from eight out of a dozen pet insurers, including Petplan, however all the firms approached declined or were not available. While this indicates a highly sensitive subject, there was no great story evident from those that did comment.

NFU Mutual, Animal Friends Insurance, John Lewis and Bought By Many are not citing disputed claims on dog public liability insurance as an issue, or experiencing significant increases in claim numbers.

Indeed, Bought By Many reported that over the last 12 months, fewer than 0.1% of its claims were liability claims.

Although public liability claims may increase following national lockdown restrictions being lifted, it’s unlikely that untruthful claims will ever constitute anything more than a small minority.

Andrew Twambley, chief executive of Injurylawyers4u, said: “I don’t think that pet insurers have built into their ratings the massive recent increase in dog ownership and possible decline in breeding standards, so pet insurance premiums could rise. However, fraudulent claims will continue to be less common than people imagine.

“Certain websites are very much persuading people bitten by dogs to make claims, even if they wouldn’t otherwise have done so, but if the court eventually finds a claimant has exaggerated their injury, then they will get nothing and risk incurring a criminal record - and their lawyer will also get nothing. So, lawyers make it a high priority to weed out dishonest claims.”

However, “some will always slip through the net”, continued Twambley. “It’s these cases that you get to hear about because they are the ones that make the good stories.”

An insurance-driven answer

It may never be possible to protect an unfortunate minority against untruthful claims, but surely more can be done to ensure that dog owners have access to affordable insurance?

Full-blown pet insurance is probably too expensive to make compulsory purchase feasible, but the public liability component is not. So, relevant parties should be trying to come up with a compulsory public liability insurance scheme for dog owners.

The insurance industry should also be considering creating a central pot to pay out for liability claims when dog owners are uninsured – taking a similar approach to the Motor Insurers’ Bureau (MIB).

But, for the time being, it should be a high priority to publicise that £1m of public liability cover can be obtained by joining welfare charity Dogs Trust – membership for which costs only £25 a year, or £12.50 a year for the over 60s.