Breaux Bridge – “Cannon” the German shepherd weighs nearly 100 pounds, has paws the size of an 8-year-old boy’s hands and can probably bite really hard – though his victim is a soccer ball, his favorite toy. He’s never bitten a human. Never even tried to.
“I realize he looks intimidating, but he’s never hurt anybody, never showed any aggression,” said Arlene Guilbeaux, who lives in the Breaux Bridge area about two miles from Interstate 10 with her husband, one cat and Cannon. The 9-year-old pooch is ensconced on a daily basis inside a large, fenced-in, electrified pen and rarely is allowed to roam free on their two-plus-acre property.
“But then, all of a sudden, I’m getting a letter from our new company saying my homeowners is cancelled,” Guilbeaux said. She was shocked and angry.
The letter, dated July 11 from agent Mike Huval Insurance in Breaux Bridge on behalf of ASI Lloyds Insurance, states, in part: “Dear Policyholder, This notice is to inform you that your insurance coverage will be terminated at 12:01 standard time on (Aug. 15, 2008). The reason is … unacceptable animal on premises (and) unacceptable risk or exposure. …”
The Guilbeauxs had previously been insured with Allstate Insurance, but she said that company had dropped – or attempted to drop in a case heard last year – so many people after the hurricanes of 2005 that she wanted to make sure her wood-frame home wouldn’t face the same fate as this hurricane season approached.
Allstate, for its part, had duly noted the “said dog” (Cannon), but with a caveat: that if “said dog” destroyed anything or was aggressive or hurt someone, the victims would have to sue the Guilbeauxs and the insurance company would be absolved of any liability. And that was fine with the Guilbeauxs, but another reason they switched to another company through Huval Insurance is because part of the previous policy under Allstate, which covered only fire and theft, was under the state-sponsored, much-maligned and more-expensive Louisiana Citizens Plan.
“That’s like not having any insurance, really,” Guilbeaux said. She said her husband went to the Breaux Bridge office and told the new company of their dog and cat. But, as seen time and again after post-hurricane claims, much of what transpires between potential customers and agents is only verbal and difficult to prove later. Ask anyone who felt ripped off because they allegedly weren’t told flood wasn’t covered.
In any case, “We thought he was going to do the same thing (as Allstate),” Guilbeaux said of new agent Wayne Dugas. It was a safe bet for the Guilbeauxs, she said, because she knew Cannon was too docile to ever hurt anybody. So, why not take the risk? Plus, ASI would keep them out of Louisiana Citizens.
She’s not blaming Dugas, but as with any shocking news such as this, the messenger is seen as the villain. “He just kept saying, ‘I understand your frustration. I’m sorry. I understand your frustration.’ And I realize he’s just the agent, but they took my deposit and even came and took pictures. He said he didn’t see the dog.”
But another ASI-based representative did, and that prompted the letter, Dugas said from his Rees Street offices.
“In this case, I didn’t see a dog,” the longtime agent said. “It could have been in the house; I don’t know. With certain companies, there’s always been this stipulation because of the liability. Every company has different rules.” He said the Guilbeauxs will get part of their money back.
“We paid him 600-something dollars,” Guilbeaux said, “but that was before they came out to take pictures. And I told him (Dugas), ‘You took my money. You gave me a policy.’ And I was thinking I was good to go and I was excited because I was out of Louisiana Citizens. And then I get a letter saying, ‘Oops! Unrestricted dog – can’t happen.’”
Truth be known, Guilbeaux said she had heard rumblings of such a policy concerning pit bulls, but thought that once the agents took the photos and her money she was OK. Not so.
“We were surprised. Now I’m back to square one, either ending up with Louisiana Citizens or paying out (of pocket) because I’ve got a dog. Or I could rid of the dog. But we don’t want to do that – he’s set in his ways. And when I told Wayne that other people need to know more about this policy, he just chuckled. And I said, ‘No, I’m serious!’ I mean, now you’ve got to be told what type of dog you can have?”
In reality, the dog-disclaimer policy is decades old, though many don’t know it, said Dugas, who added that different companies have different homeowners-policy guidelines in which liability is included. It’s usually breeds of dog with histories of aggression, he said. ASI has a list of a dozen banned breeds, including German shepherds, pits, chow chows, Dobermans and rottweilers.
Note that these are all fairly big dogs.
Dogs have the largest variation in body size of any land animal, partially because a section of genes in smaller dogs keep them that way. It’s probably one reason why mini-mutts such as Chihuahuas and Pekingese can bark and bite with the best of the big dogs on the block. They don’t know any better, apparently. Yet no one can deny that getting bitten by a tiny terrier is not as invasive as having, say, a pit bull chomp off your arm. Thus, insurance companies generally list only larger breeds. In this case, that’s ASI Lloyds of Saint Petersburg, Fla., one of a handful of new companies now writing in Louisiana since hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
“The company (such as ASI) takes a stand that if you have the type of dog, you don’t write it. No exceptions,” Dugas said. Horses, trampolines and swimming pools also are suspect, he said. “We’re glad to have companies coming back to Louisiana, but they have restrictions. Everybody has their own different guidelines. It’s not our decision. And I’m not denying he (Cannon) is a sweet dog. But it’s not up to me.”
Dugas said “I’m sure” there are companies that insure bigger dogs, “but none we represent. I’ve been in this business more than 20 years and a lot of times we don’t know they have the dogs, unless the people tell us. We don’t know they have a trampoline in the yard unless they tell us. We try to go out to each house (before writing the policy). But, yes, they’re going to cover her (Guilbeaux) until Aug. 15. They’ll charge her pro-rata time and return the unused portion of her payment,” Dugas said.
The Guilbeauxs are not the first to complain, Dugas said, “and we’ve had to turn people down. And trust me. We don’t take money from customers if we know the company’s going to decline it (as in this case). That’s extra work for us.”
In St. Martinville, agent-owner Louis Durand said he’s seen owners get rid of dogs just to get coverage. That can really affect children and family members, especially since dogs are often-times considered a vital part of the family. Back in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, Durand himself had to put down the family dog when his little boy was playing with it and it bit someone else.
“All of them (companies) list pit bulls and rottweilers,” Durand said this past Monday. “A few have German shepherds. Some companies lower the dog liability to $25,000 instead of $100,000.”
Plus, he said some firms are getting stricter.
“A lot of companies are doing inspections now,” Durand continued. “When I write a house I can’t tell if they put a trampoline in the yard later on, which is a no-no. Just like a swimming pool. I can’t go out there and watch every house. I had to put a collie to sleep. It barely nipped the guy, but it cost us $120,000 and three days in court. I told my wife, ‘I can’t keep the dog.’ I’ve seen it before, especially if you’ve got a pit bull, that you’re not getting coverage – if they know about it. But if you fraudulently sign the application saying ‘all the above is true,’ and as far as I know it’s true, then we find out the owner lied on the application, well, I wouldn’t want to have my insurance company fighting me in court.”
Another problem, he said, is when certain agents sign policies just for a commission and don’t really check out the property and what’s on it. “I’m not naming any names,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Guilbeauxs have some research to do to get a new policy. She’s not giving up Cannon, if at all possible. Just this past weekend, while sitting for the Teche News photo session, Cannon was calm for the photo and then, suddenly, lunged toward … the aforementioned soccer ball. Guilbeaux laughed at the large pooch with the big heart as he straddled the “conquered” ball. She stares at Cannon for a bit.
“I’m like, ‘What, now I can’t have this dog? Do German shepherds have to be wiped off the face of the earth? That’s sad.”