State bills to stop insurers from charging higher premiums for high-risk breeds leave 90% of U.S. dog owners holding the bag for the reckless 10%
GAINESVILLE, Georgia––A $5.6 million Hall County, Georgia jury award issued on May 19, 2023 to pit bull attack victim Stacy Finelli, 54, may become the largest on record in which a pit bull victim actually received one red cent.
“The attorneys said there was insurance coverage in the case,” reported Nick Watson for the Gainesville Times, “but they added they were not at liberty to say if there were any caps related to the verdict.”
Minnesota joins rush to penalize safe dog owners
The verdict for Finelli came as Minnesota governor Tim Walz was imminently expected to endorse into a law state house bill 1532, modeled after laws already in effect in New York and Connecticut, which would oblige insurance companies to cover pit bulls and other dogs of high risk breeds at the same rates as the 250-odd other breeds who have never killed or severely injured anyone.
Such bills are also advancing through other state legislatures with the aggressive support of the American Kennel Club, American SPCA, Best Friends Animal Society, and the Humane Society of the U.S., and with only token insurance industry opposition.
Why “humane” groups want to screw the public
The AKC motivation appears to be primarily to help member breeders to sell more of a variety of high-risk breeds long excluded from coverage by most insurance companies.
The ASPCA, Best Friends, and HSUS hope to persuade more people to adopt pit bulls, about 5% of the U.S. dog population but accounting for more than a third of shelter intake for more than 20 years, rising to more than two-thirds of shelter intake in the past half dozen years.
Why insurance companies don’t care
The insurance industry mostly either tacitly supports or at least does not oppose bills requiring all dogs to be covered at the same rates because such bills allow insurers to spread the elevated expense of covering dangerous dogs among all insured dog owners.
In theory, spreading the cost of insuring high-risk dogs among all insured dog owners will at least decrease the risk that attack victims like Stacy Finelli will go completely uncompensated, by enabling more owners of high-risk breeds to buy insurance.
In reality, the propensity for risk-taking exhibited by people who acquire high-risk dogs in the first place extends also to acquiring insurance at any rates.
A pit bull named Bronson
Many and perhaps most victims of pit bull attacks find that the pit bull owners are uninsured, are not property owners, and have nothing else of sufficient value to compensate a lawyer for filing a lawsuit, let alone to pay hospital bills and damages.
Stacy Finelli may receive at least part of the $5.6 million jury award to her, but only because neighbors Jean Steusloff, 73, and Tom Steusloff, deceased in August 2022, were temporarily housing one of their two adult sons, who brought with him a pit bull named Bronson, dubbed a Labrador/pit bull mix in legal filings.
The Steusloff home was insured.
Anyone who carries mail is a target
Recounted Gainesville Times reporter Nick Watson, “Stacy Finelli on March 24, 2022 walked over to her neighbors, the Steusloffs, to give them a large stack of mail that was misdelivered to the Finellis’ home.
“Tom Steusloff and his son were not at home March 24, 2022 when Finelli knocked on the door. After talking for 20-40 minutes on the porch,” Watson summarized, “Jean Steusloff invited Stacy Finelli to see their renovated master bedroom.”
But Bronson attacked Stacy Finelli as she followed Jean Steusloff down a hall toward the bedroom.
“Playful dog” repeatedly jumped older women
Wrote Watson, “’Judging by the photos, to us it looked more like a shark attack than a dog attack,’ attorney Rustin Smith previously told The Times.”
Trial attorney Matt Cook, representing the Finellis, told the court that, “Five out of six visits to the veterinary office, two different offices said that Bronson had aggression problems.”
The Steusloffs’ attorneys, however, asserted that the Bronson had never been aggressive or attacked anyone.
“Bronson was a playful dog who would sometimes jump on people, but without biting them,” the defense wrote, while mentioning two instances where the dog jumped on older women,” Watson paraphrased.
Bronson got “Death Wish”
Hall County Superior Court Judge Bonnie Oliver, in rejecting a motion for summary judgement against the Finellis, “referenced depositions showing that the Steusloffs were present when another person was allegedly bitten by the dog,” Watson said.
In addition to the $5.6 million verdict for Stacy Finelli, her husband Tony Finelli was awarded $20,159, and the Finellis were awarded $50,000 in attorneys’ fees.
Bronson the pit bull was euthanized after the attack on Stacy Finelli.
“Stacy Finelli is still in physical therapy,” Watson reported. “She has endured five surgeries with still two more to go, her attorneys said.”
Said Matt Cook, “She went from running multiple marathons in her life, multiple 10Ks, to now being able to run about 30 seconds to one minute at a time on a treadmill.”
Finelli won “Extra Mile Award”
A longtime French teacher at Habersham Central High School in Gainesville, Stacy Finelli in May 2015 was honored with an “Extra Mile Award.”
“Finelli’s ‘Extra Mile’ of service took place,” wrote Elaine Irvin for the Gainesville Times, “when she escorted a group of Habersham Central students on a trip to Europe during spring break. Student Maddie Moore, daughter of Sean and Rhonda Moore, developed a serious kidney infection during the trip and was hospitalized for six days in a Parisian hospital after a visit to an emergency room there.”
Finelli stayed with Moore until she was able to fly home.
Highest Georgia award to pit bull victim was symbolic
The $5.6 million jury award to Stacy Finelli is actually far from the Georgia state record for a dog attack. DeKalb County senior judge Matthew Robins, of Decatur, Georgia, in January 2015 awarded $37 million to 8-year-old pit bull attack victim Erin Ingram, who lost both arms, among many other severe injuries.
But the Ingram award, issued against Twyann Artrell Vaughn, whose pit bulls attacked Ingram in 2010, was expected to be largely symbolic.
Vaughn was in 2012 sentenced to serve 16 months in jail, spend 36 months on probation, and perform 240 hours of community service for violations of the Georgia Vicious Dog Act.
Architect of DeKalb County pit bull ban repeal was killed by bully breeds
Despite the severity of the Ingram mauling, the DeKalb County commissioners in May 2012 repealed a ban on possession of pit bulls, responding to a campaign led by Best Friends Network volunteer and vet tech trainee Rebecca Carey.
Carey, 23, was on August 13, 2012 found dead at her home from neck and upper torso injuries inflicted by one or more of the five dogs in her care, among whom were two pit bulls, two Presa Canarios, and a boxer mix.
Third highest Georgia award may not have been paid, either
The third highest Georgia award to a dog attack victim was a $4.25 million default judgment issued on June 1, 2018 against Atlanta landlord Jonathan Kent Hart, 66, for an August 26, 2016 pit bull attack on Nakisa Shavon Hiles, then 40.
Hiles, formerly Nakisa Hiles Wilkerson, had just rented a room from Hart, according to court filings, and “was entering the rear entrance in a cautious and prudent manner,” when “a pit bull broke off its chain,” charged her, and “without provocation, viciously attacked and repeatedly bit” her on her right leg and ankle.
Whether any of that award was ever paid is unclear.
$1.3 billion in dog attack claims were actually paid in 2021
ANIMALS 24-7 is aware of at least five awards to dog attack victims in other states larger than any of those in Georgia, including a $100 million award to pit bull victim Steven Constantine, of Wayne County, Michigan, issued by circuit judge Daphne Means Curtis during Dog Bite Prevention Week 2015.
Few of those victims, however, are known to have ever received any of the compensation owed to them.
Despite the many bully-breed-owning deadbeats, however, “U.S. insurers paid out more than $1 billion in dog-related injury claims in 2022, a double-digit percentage increase over 2021, even though the number of claims decreased within that time frame,” chirped Insurance Information Institute flack Janet Ruiz on April 6, 2023.
“Unfortunately, the total cost of these claims increased by 28% in 2022 to $1.13 billion,” Ruiz admitted, “with an average cost per claim rising by 32%, to $64,555.”
“Bully breeds are driving the increase”
Altogether, U.S. insurance industry payouts for dog attacks have doubled in only five years.
“We’re seeing this precipitous rise in the cost of these dog injuries,” Minnesota Association of Farm Mutual Insurance Companies chief executive officer Adam Axvig told Corin Hoggard of FOX 9 in St. Paul on May 15, 2023.
“Axvig says bully breeds are driving the increase. He says less than 10% of dogs in American homes are pit bulls, but they cause more than 60% of dog-related deaths,” Hoggard paraphrased, citing attack data confirmed annually by ANIMALS 24-7 since 1982.
Human fatalities caused by pit bulls and other bully breeds have risen from an average of fewer than one per year, 1930-1960, to an average of more than 40 per year, 2017-2022, while the percentage of dog attack deaths inflicted by bully breeds has never dipped below two-thirds over any given five-year interval.