DOG BITES: DEFINING AN OCCURRENCE

In a recent appellate decision from Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeal, the issue of defining an "occurrence" as applied to dog bite cases was addressed.

In the case of Maddox v. Florida Farm Bureau, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D1946 (Fla. 5th DCA September 13, 2013) the plaintiff, a mother who was living with her boyfriend, heard screaming from her son’s room. As she entered the room she saw her boyfriend’s dog biting her son’s face. As she attempted to stop the dog, the dog turned and attached the plaintiff.

Given that the negligence and strict liability was clear the issue before the court was the insurance policies definition of occurrence. The boyfriend’s homeowner’s policy provided liability coverage of $100,000 for “each” occurrence. Specifically, the policy provided “all bodily injury and property damage resulting from any one accident or from continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same harmful conditions shall be considered to be the result of one occurrence.” The policy went on to provide and define “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions, which results during the policy period.”

At the trial level the Florida Farm Bureau (insurance company) was successful in limiting the dog bite to one occurrence and thus limiting their financial exposure. The appellate court however reversed the trial court decision and held that in the absence of explicit language to the contrary the Florida Supreme Court has adopted the “cause theory”. As provided by the Florida Supreme Court ruling, Florida has adopted the cause theory which examines the cause of the party’s injuries for determining the number of occurrences under a policy. The inquiry is then whether there was but one proximate, uninterrupted and continuing cause resulting in the injuries and damages.

In the Maddox case because the policy did not provide any explicit language to the contrary the occurrence language had to be viewed against the drafter and thus the trial court was reversed.

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