Thursday, March 10, 2011

"My dog was hit by a car. Will the driver's auto insurance cover the vet bills?"

Here's what happened: A woman was walking her dog. Both got hit by a car. Both survived.

The woman's medical bills were covered by the driver's Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage. (This is a little-known fact, by the way: PIP also covers pedestrians.)

But for the dog, the insurer only offered what it considered the animal's value: $75. The company wouldn't pay the veterinary bills for the badly injured dog.

The sad fact for pet owners is that under insurance law, pets are considered personal property. An auto policy's medical coverage doesn't cover pet injuries. Under the law, it's as if the driver had struck a mailbox. The company estimates the value of the personal property, then offers to pay that amount.

That said -- and this is not legal advice -- the owner might be able to sue the driver for the dog's medical expenses, as they are part of the dog owner's damages and may be covered under liability for property damage. But the owner would have to weigh the costs involved.

And if the animal was a fancy show dog, for example, the owner could likely prove a higher value for the dog. Our Consumer Advocacy folks once helped intervene to get a higher insurance payment for a dead goat.

The key point, however, is probably this: It often pays to buy health insurance for a pet. Here in Washington state, 11 insurers sell a total of 39 different policies covering pets. Some cover accidents only. Others include annual physicals, vaccines and cancer coverage. Most cover only dogs or cats; one company also offers coverage for birds and exotic pets. Every policy offers a multi-pet discount, and some offer discounts for pets with a microchip, etc.

What's it cost? According to the rates they've filed with our office,
  • Coverage for cats ranges from $83 to $926 a year; most policies are $150-$250 annually.
  • Coverage for a dog ranges from $107 to $1,059 a year, but most coverage is between $225 and $400 annually.