Insurance co. apologizes for rift with Neb. deputy

OMAHA, Neb. -- An insurance company that canceled the homeowner's policy of a Nebraska sheriff's deputy because of his K-9 unit dog said Thursday it's looking to change its practices regarding police dogs.

American Family Insurance Co. also offered an apology Thursday to Douglas County Deputy Andy Woodward, who received a letter from the insurer this month informing him his policy would end Dec. 19 "due to the additional liability exposure of your police dog."

Woodward, 36, said he learned in July after the insurance company conducted its annual inspection of his home that American Family was considering ending his homeowner's policy because he cares for his K-9, Diezel _ which the insurer said violated its policy of insuring those with aggressive dogs.

Woodward said he informed his agent that the county carries liability insurance for the dog and thought the matter was settled, until he received the cancellation letter on Oct. 15.

"It was just like a slap in the face," said Woodward, who is required by the sheriff's office to keep the 4-year-old Belgian Malinois at his home. "I'm going to get dropped from my home insurance for this?"

Steve Witmer, a spokesman for American Family, called the cancellation "an unfortunate misunderstanding" Wednesday, saying the company expected the deputy to provide confirmation that Douglas County held liability insurance on the dog.

On Thursday, Witmer said the company was at fault.

"The miscommunication was on our part," Witmer said. "This is something that should have been a relatively easy process, and it turned into a hardship for Mr. Woodward. For that, we truly do apologize."

Woodward is the fourth law enforcement officer in 33 years to face having his American Family homeowner's policy canceled because of the presence of a police dog, Witmer said. In all the cases, except for Woodward's, coverage continued because proof of liability coverage on the K-9s was shown, he said.

Dog bites account for the largest percentage of homeowners' liability claims, Witmer said, and because of that, American Family's underwriting guidelines list certain types of dogs as being ineligible for homeowners' insurance, including breeds deemed to be aggressive, such as Akitas, American pit bull terriers, chows, Rottweilers and wolf hybrids.

The company, he said Wednesday, does not sell policies to those who own a trained guard or attack dog, and the company had deemed police dogs as such.

But that changed Thursday.

"We're looking at our guidelines as they apply to police dogs and acknowledging that the interpretation of those guidelines wasn't in the spirit of what was intended. The guidelines weren't intended to cover households with police dogs," he said.

Woodward said Thursday he had not heard from American Family. He has already obtained homeowners' insurance through another company.

"My only reaction is that I don't want this to happen to another law enforcement officer," he said. "It was gut-wrenching ... I have two boys and a wife who come first, and to have that happen and the possibility of not having insurance to cover my family was just one of the most stressful things I've gone through in a long time."

News of Woodward's predicament grabbed the attention of the nation's largest law enforcement union. Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, had earlier warned that American Family should prepare to be shunned by its 325,000 members.

Pasco said Thursday he wasn't buying the company's apology and questioned its sudden about-face.

"They acted in self interest in terminating the deputy's insurance, and they've clearly acted in enlightened self-interest in changing their policy," Pasco said. "That being said, we're happy that American Family has joined the entire insuring universe in recognizing that police dogs enhance safety rather than adversely affecting it."

Woodward said American Family's policy of lumping police dogs in with other aggressive dogs doesn't make sense. He said Diezel, a drug-sniffing and patrol dog, will attack only at his command and undergoes eight hours of obedience training a week.

"He knows that what I say goes, and he doesn't act on his own," Woodward said.