Insurer cancels deputy’s homeowner policy; police dog at home deemed too risky

Oct 25, 2012

The following article was posted to the Website on October 24, 2012:

Insurer cancels deputy’s homeowner insurance; police dog at home deemed too risky

By Christopher Burbach

A national insurance company is canceling a local K-9 officer’s homeowners insurance — because he keeps a police dog in his home.

In what appears to be a local first and a national rarity, American Family Insurance told Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Andy Woodward last week that his insurance would be terminated in December. The company apparently was not swayed by arguments that the county insures the dog and that Woodward is required to live with it.

The issue arose after an insurance company worker, while conducting an on-site review of the deputy’s home, spotted Woodward’s marked K-9 cruiser in the driveway. American Family subsequently learned that Diezel, the deputy’s Belgian Malinois canine partner, lives at the house.

American Family notified Woodward by letter Oct. 15 that his homeowners insurance coverage would be terminated.

“Due to the additional liability exposure of your police dog, we are unable to continue your homeowner coverage,” the letter said.

Diezel is insured by Douglas County. Woodward, like his fellow K-9 officers, is required to keep his dog at home.

The company gave Woodward time to procure insurance from another company, which he has done. But that doesn’t make it all right with him, and the matter raised concern among law enforcement union leaders in Douglas County and Omaha.

“This is infuriating that I’m getting dropped because of my profession,” said Woodward, 36, who has been a deputy for eight years. He said the company’s decision amounted to bias against his profession.

“He’s my dog,” Woodward said. “He has to go home with me.”

The dog is well-trained — including daily training with Woodward at home and a full day of training with the deputy each week, Woodward said. The two have state and national certifications. Diezel is restrained in a large kennel with high fences and a concrete pad, Woodward said.

Jim Maguire, president of the deputies’ union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 2, said he had never heard of an insurance company dropping a K-9 officer because of his dog. Maguire plans to inform union members about the matter.

He and Sgt. John Wells, president of the Omaha police union, expressed concern that it might set a precedent.

“This just doesn’t seem right, for a company this size, to do this over a police dog,” Maguire said.

Added Wells, “Today, it’s a K-9 guy. Tomorrow, is it a SWAT guy because he has a high-powered rifle? … It’s a very unfair decision that seems solely based on his occupation.”

An American Family spokesman, Steve Witmer, said the company has nothing against law enforcement officers. The decision was based on the dog, not its owner’s occupation, Witmer said.

“It’s a big issue. Dog bites, or dog attacks, are the largest single cause of homeowners’ claims since the 1990s,” he said.

American Family has underwriting guidelines that restrict certain breeds of dogs, as well as trained guard or attack dogs, Witmer said. Woodward’s dog doesn’t fit the former category. The company’s prohibited breeds are Akitas, American pit bull terriers, Chows, Rott-weilers and wolf mixes, Witmer said.

But, to American Family, the deputy’s dog fit the latter.

Witmer said someone from American Family asked Woodward, “What would happen if somebody wandered into your yard?” and Woodward replied that the dog would attack.

Woodward said no such conversation occurred.

Witmer confirmed that Woodward told the company that Douglas County covers the dog. He said there was discussion of the county certifying in writing that it has liability coverage of the dog. Witmer said he isn’t sure what happened in that regard.

Normally, such certification would resolve any problem with a K-9 officer’s homeowners insurance, said Terry Fleck, a nationally known canine legal expert based in Nevada.

He called the insurance company’s action ludicrous.

“In 30 years of doing this, I’ve heard of this happening once, in Florida, and it got resolved immediately,” Fleck said. “It’s the owner of the dog who’s always held liable for the actions of the dog.”

The owner is the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

The Belgian Malinois, a type of shepherd dog that is increasingly popular as a military and police dog, can be dangerous to bad actors when on duty. It has been widely reported that Cairo, the canine member of Navy SEAL Team Six on its mission to kill Osama bin Laden, was a Belgian Malinois. Diezel is a dual-purpose dog, working on patrol and narcotics detection. There have been no problems with him.

Mark Langan, director of field operations for the Nebraska Humane Society and a former longtime narcotics officer, said he had never heard of an attack locally by a Belgian Malinois or of an unprovoked attack by a police dog on a person.

For his part, Woodward said the insurance company asked if the county would sign a letter verifying that it provides liability insurance for Diezel, and he said the county would.

“I was told that they were going to send a letter and have the county sign it,” Woodward said.

Instead, he said, another letter arrived — a cancellation notice.

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