Ohio Court Cites Wording of Exception to Exclusion in Reviving Dog Bite Claim

By Jim Sams | November 14, 2023

An Ohio appellate court revived a dog bite injury claim against an insurer after finding that the terms of an exclusion in the homeowners’ insurance policy, intended to bar coverage for dogs with a history of violence, may not have done the trick.

A panel of the 3rd Appellate District in Allen County ruled Monday that a jury could find the policy provides coverage because of the wording to an exception to the exclusion. The court reversed a decision by Common Pleas Court that granted summary judgment in favor of Grange Indemnity Insurance Co.

Matthew Farmwald filed a claim after his dog Caesar bit Shane Hinds, who had been taking care of the dog while Farmwald traveled to Florida with his girlfriend Kelly Wildermuth, who is also Hinds’ mother. Hinds said Caesar bit his nose and right arm while was trying to feed and water the animal.

Grange denied the claim and filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that its policy excluded coverage for Hinds’ injury. Its policy specifically excluded damages caused by animals that had previously caused bodily injury to any person or animal.

Farmwald filed a counterclaim. The Common Pleas Court for Allen Countygranted a motion from Grange for summary judgment after rejecting Farmwald’s argument that the exclusion was ambiguous.

Caesar, a cross between Great Dane and Dogo Argententio, had bitten humans and other animals on five previous occasions. He nipped the arm of Hinds’ sister, Kami Ellis. He bit Wildermuths’ right thumb. He nipped Wildermuth and Hinds’ dogs another time. He also bit an Australian Shepard at a dog park.

While the Grange insurance policy excluded coverage for damages caused by dogs with a history of biting, the same exclusion contained an exception for instances in which the animal was reacting to protect people or property.

The appellate panel said the exclusion was clear and ambiguous and Caesar did have a history of biting people and other animals. But in each instance, the panel said, there was evidence that the dog was reacting to protect people or property.

“Consequently, we conclude (based on the facts presented) that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether the exception to the policy exclusion applies in this case,” the opinion said.

Farmwald’s attorney, Clay Balyeat of Balyeat, Leahy, Daley, Miller and Bensinger in Lima, said in an email that he has never before seen a policy exclusion written the same way as Grange’s policy. He said he has no idea whether Grange will not attempt to settle the case or ask for reconsideration or appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“As usual, a settlement is better for your client, but I will wait and see what Grange does with this,” he said.

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