Articles Posted in Dog Bites

Though we love them like members of our families, dogs are animals. And like any animal, a dog can get “spooked” for reasons their owner can’t see or explain.

For example, a gentleman in Bonita Springs was walking to watch a Florida State basketball game at a friend’s house when a car suddenly backfired. A dog that was sitting on the front porch of the house the man was walking past jumped up, startled, and ran toward the man.

Moments later, the dog’s owner came rushing out of her house when she heard the man screaming at the dog, “Get off!” The dog had latched onto his calf and refused to let go. 20 stitches later, the man still needs physical therapy to rebuild the muscle in his calf. The dog’s owner said it had never attacked anyone before and wouldn’t even leave the yard when not secured on a leash.

You’re walking in your neighborhood in Cape Coral, and suddenly, a large, unfamiliar dog comes barreling out of a neighbor’s house—straight toward you. Before you know it, the dog’s teeth are clamped around your ankle. The owner detaches the dog, and offers apologies, but how do you proceed? Let’s discuss the legal ins and outs associated with dog bites in the state of Florida.

Who’s At Fault?

As you might guess, the dog’s owner is at fault. The dog bite statute in Florida is very simple: pet owners are liable for their pets, and if a dog bites a person, the dog’s owner is responsible for the medical bills and associated costs.

In Arellano v. Broward K-9/Miami K-9 Services, Inc., the defendant provided two guard dogs to a business located in Miami. One Monday morning, one of the defendant’s employees visited the business to feed the dogs. He discovered, however, that the dogs had escaped from the yard. It was later determined that the business was burglarized the previous night and that the burglars had cut the fence that kept the dogs in the yard.

The plaintiff found the two dogs and believed that they belonged to one of her neighbors. As a result, she fed and sheltered the dogs for five days. During that time, she made efforts to locate the dogs’ owner, including emailing the neighborhood watch group and notifying the County Animal Services office. The plaintiff also had two pet dogs of her own, and she kept them separated from the guard dogs. On the Friday following the dog’s escape, she came home from work to find the two guard dogs missing. She let her pet dogs into the backyard. Shortly thereafter, the guard dogs returned and jumped the fence into the backyard. The plaintiff managed to contain the guard dogs in her laundry room, but one soon escaped and attacked one of her other dogs in the backyard. When the plaintiff intervened in the attack, one of the guard dogs bit her big toe, causing an injury.

Animal Control was called to the scene and took the dogs away, while the plaintiff was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

When an accident or injury occurs at home, a homeowner’s insurance policy should provide personal liability coverage. It is not uncommon, however, for an insurance company to attempt to limit its responsibility under the policy. A Florida appeals court has addressed the issue of multiple occurrences of injury, and whether a homeowner’s policy will cover each occurrence.

In Maddox v. Florida Farm Bureau General, Etc. et. al., the Fifth District held in favor of an injury victim due to ambiguities in a homeowners’ insurance policy. In that case, the plaintiff was living with her boyfriend in a residence that was insured under a homeowner’s policy issued by the defendant insurer. The injuries at issue in the case were sustained as a result of multiple dog bites to the plaintiff as well as her son. The evidence showed that a dog belonging to the plaintiff’s boyfriend began attacking one of the plaintiff’s young sons. The plaintiff and her boyfriend attempted to stop the attack, but the dog then attacked the plaintiff. Both victims sustained facial injuries.

The homeowner’s insurance policy in question provided personal liability coverage limited to $100,000 for each “occurrence.” The term “occurrence,” as defined in the particular policy, meant an accident that resulted in bodily injury. However, the policy also stated that any bodily injury resulting from continuous exposure to the same harmful conditions would be considered to be the result of one “occurrence.”

Many times during the course of my practice people have come to me after they or their child have been attacked by a dog  and want to know whether they can sue the owner of the dog. My answer is always;” It depends.” Florida has a specific statute regarding a dog owner’s liability for an attack which basically says an owner of a dog is liable only if the owner did not do certain  things. For instance, if the owner put up prominent signs on his property which said  ”Bad Dog” and the attack happened on the property the owner is not liable unless the victim is under 6 years old, the owner told the victim to ignore the signs or the owner did something himself/herself which contributed to the attack. Of course the owner also always has the defense that the victim somehow provoked the attack. Lastly, if the attack did not occur on the property then obviously the “sign defense” goes out the window.

Another issue which often arises is even if the owner of the dog is responsible is it worth it to sue. Assuming the injuries are significant, the sad fact is that it is rarely worth suing for injuries unless the responsible party has homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Florida has been called a “debtor’s heaven” because of its many laws which make it very difficult to collect against an individual’s assets. For instance, even if the owner of the dog owner owns his own home, if that home is homesteaded it is exempt from judgment. And even if there is insurance you still need to examine the policy itself since many policies now exclude from their coverage any attacks by dogs or exclude attacks by certain breeds of dogs, i.e. pitbulls.

As you can see, if you or a loved one are attacked by a dog, it is important to hire an experience attorney given the complicated issues that arise in pursuing damages from that attack. We at Lusk, Drasites and Tolisano P.A.  would be happy to meet with you at no charge to discuss those issues with you.

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