We all love our pets, but we occasionally hear of something that went terribly wrong when a dog cannot control its behavior and a bite occurs resulting in an ugly injury.
A few years ago a young mother from New Port Richey brought her beautiful 5 year old daughter to my office. With long blond hair and blue eyes, it was like she fell out of a Pottery Barn for Kids catalogue. But I immediately saw the problem. Besides an innate sadness not usually seen in a child that young, “Molly” had two prominent unhealed wounds underneath each eye. When her mother tilted her head back, I could see two more prominent unhealed wounds to the jaw line underneath her chin.
The wounds underneath Molly’s eyes represented where the canine teeth punctured her skin from the upper jaw of a dog. The wounds under her chin were from the bottom incisors of the dog. This dog essentially enveloped her face with his mouth as if he was swallowing her whole.
She also had two black eyes and a whole host of canine teeth abrasions all up and down her face.
A few days earlier, Molly and Mom were at their favorite park in New Port Richey when Molly spotted a pretty dog sitting dutifully next to his owner. The dog was exactly Molly’s height. As she ran up to the mid-sized dog, she slowed, looked at the dog owner who seemed to encourage Molly to pet the dog which appeared well behaved and on a leash.
Whatever happened from here on is still a mystery. For some reason the dog detected this 5 year old as some threat and bit her on the face and held on tight. Horrified, the dog owner immediately got the dog to release this child, but by that time the damage had already been done.
The degree of significant mental trauma aside, the physical damage to this little girl was obvious. Lacerations and bruising were temporary and topical, but it was the puncture wounds that caused the biggest future concern. The wounds under the eyes would scar and as Molly grew the symmetrical scarring would as well.
Of course, it could have been much worse for Molly – we’ve all heard the horror stories. We were able to negotiate a financial settlement with the dog owner through her homeowner’s insurance company to provide for Molly’s future plastic surgery care as she grew. By the way, this young woman still resides in New Port Richey and is doing very well. The scarring isn’t visible to anybody but Molly and is well concealed with make-up.
But why this woman encouraged this child to approach her dog in the park is also a mystery. The dog had known violent tendencies which made this case even more aggravating for Molly’s mom and a real factor in why this case settled before trial.
But, did you know that if your dog bites someone there are almost no legal defenses? It’s a doctrine called “strict liability”: If you bring your dog into contact with the public you are assuring everyone he comes in contact with that he is not dangerous, and in fact, approachable. If a bite occurs, you are responsible. It’s just that simple.
This isn’t unusual to Florida. In fact, the owner of any dog that bites someone is liable for damages regardless of the former viciousness of the dog. F.S. 767.04. So, there is no free “first bite”. Even if your dog has been the most gentle dog in the neighborhood, if he bites, you’re responsible.
There is one exception to this: If the person provoked the dog in any way through his own negligence, the degree of negligence would reduce the percentage of responsibility of the dog owner.
And there’s even an exception to the exception! You cannot impute provocation to a child under 6. So, even if Molly hadn’t glanced at the dog owner but instead pounced on the dog “provoking” a bite, by law the dog owner is responsible for this as well.
Two ways to protect yourself: If your dog is essentially a watch dog for security and protection, erect a sign that says “Bad Dog”. It’s not fool proof but it will help. Also, make sure to check your homeowners’ insurance policy. Many insurance companies are not covering dog bites because of the exposure it presents to the company.
You won’t be too surprised to read that our New Port Richey attorneys represented many people in a certain occupation who regularly experience dog bites: Mailmen and mailwomen. It’s almost a right of passage!