Doggedly Seeking Suits

Last month, while in the backyard of his neighbor's north Phoenix home, 11-year-old Randell Buchanan learned a painful lesson.

Randell's neighbor, Susan Finney, takes in stray, abused and abandoned dogs. At any given time, as many as a dozen displaced canines call her backyard home.

Obeying his boyhood instincts, Randell decided to play with the dogs.
"He was screaming, running around, getting the dogs all worked up," Randell's mother, Sheanna, recalls.

Obeying their canine instincts, the dogs gave chase to the shrieking boy. Some of the dogs knew it was all in fun. Others, like China Louise, a 2-year-old border collie, were less clear on the concept.

"She just didn't know what to do," Finney says. "She's not a mean dog at all. She's a kissy dog. She was just confused."

China Louise bit Randell behind the knee. Randell ran home, where his mother took one look at the bite and rushed him to the hospital. After receiving four stitches, he was released.

Randell's mother says her son should have known better.
"He's a smart kid, really," Buchanan says.
Buchanan and Finney shook hands over the incident. Finney even pitched in to help pay for the boy's medication. Life went on in the neighborhood.

Several weeks passed before the letter arrived in Buchanan's mailbox. She opened it and, at first, couldn't believe what she was reading. The letter was from a lawyer. The memory of it still rankles her.

"I read the part where he said, 'Your child, Randell, was attacked and bitten by a dog,'" Buchanan remembers. "And I was like, 'Whoa! Who says he was attacked? And how did some lawyer find out about it?'"

She read on and learned that the lawyer had found out about the bite by reviewing records at Maricopa County Animal Control.

"I want to make sure that unpredictable dogs are controlled and extremely dangerous dogs are destroyed," the attorney wrote. "I also want to make sure dog-attack victims like your child get every dollar and every dime that they deserve."

The letter was signed "Scott Richardson, Dog Bite Injury Lawyer." Buchanan called Richardson.

"He was real friendly," she says. "He asked me how Randell was, if there was anything he could do. I told him I really didn't appreciate the letter. I told him to take me off his mailing list."

After hanging up, she walked next door and showed the letter to Finney.
Attached to the letter were several pages of information presented in a question-and-answer format. Among the items was one tailored to a person who might have qualms about suing a neighbor's insurance company for damages. That item read:

"The dog owner is my neighbor and my friend. She says that if I make a claim on her insurance, it's going to raise her rates sky-high. She doesn't want to tell me the name of her insurance company. I want to get my bills paid. What should I do?"

The potential litigant is told that "homeowners liability insurance is NOT like car insurance. If you make a claim on your neighbor's insurance, it does not increase the premium amount for the dog owner's insurance."

Finney says her insurance company told her differently.
"When I first started taking in these dogs, I was told that if a claim was made against me, I would never be able to get homeowner's insurance again as long as I had any dog," she says.

Finney calls Richardson's statement the equivalent of false advertising.
Greg Harris, executive assistant director for the Arizona Department of Insurance, says Finney may have a case. But, he adds, it's all a matter of nuance.

"Insurance companies have the right to say, 'Get rid of the dog,'" he explains. "They have the right to say, 'Keep the dog and we're not covering it,' and they have a right to say, 'We're sorry, this isn't the sort of risk we thought we were taking on when we wrote the policy.'"

The lawyer's assertion that a claim against Finney's policy will not increase her premiums "may not be true at all," Harris adds.

"If they exclude the dog from the coverage but charge the same amount, isn't that effectively an increase in the premium?" Harris asks.

Harris says companies can also refuse to renew coverage, forcing a dog owner to seek insurance with another company at a higher rate.

"If other insurers are going to refuse to cover you again because you've had a dog bite, does that really mean that your premiums are not going to go up, if you can't find new coverage?" he asks.

Scott E. Richardson, dog bite attorney, stands behind his claim.
"I defy you to find someone that says they raise their rates," he says.
New Times contacted agents from three separate insurers. None said that a dog bite would directly affect premiums or lead to the cancellation of a policy. But all agreed that a bite could affect coverage indirectly.

One agent said it usually takes more than one bite before policyholders feel it in their pocketbooks.

"A lot of it depends on the dog," another agent said. "Some dogs--say, rottweilers or pit bulls--are definitely considered higher risks."

While Richardson's claim about premiums may be an oversimplification, his right to solicit business through the mail is protected under rules laid down by the state Supreme Court.

Lynda Shely, ethics counsel for the State Bar Association, says lawyers cannot solicit business from potential clients face to face, or by telephone. If lawyers send letters hoping to drum up business, she adds, they must be clearly marked as solicitations, as was Richardson's.

As for the letter itself, Shely says, lawyers are required to ensure that what they write is factually accurate. In Richardson's case, she says there "maybe should have been more of a nuance."

"Maybe he should have said something like, 'This may not affect your neighbor's insurance rates,'" she says.

In the meantime, Richardson says, he has decided to modify the letter, which he says was part of a test mailing to 20 households.

"I can tell you right now, we had some people that said, 'Hey, my neighbor apologized and agreed to pay for my medical bills. Why am I getting this letter?'

"So we're gonna make it real clear that if that's the case, you can just throw it in the garbage and ignore it.


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