Dog bite cases examined

Bite reported nearly every day in Orange County

Charlie Henderson, 4, was playing on the sidewalk in front of his grandmother's home when a neighbor's dog named Duke attacked him, according to family members.

[WEB EXTRA: Dog bite statistics ]

"Before you knew it, the dog came out of the blue, jumped on him, tackled him down to the floor and bit him in the face," said Wendy Morales, who immediately took her grandson to the hospital.

Although the boy's injuries did not require stitches, photographs show several wounds on his face the family said were caused by the Bernard mix chomping down.

Dog bites like the one that injured Henderson are practically a daily occurrence in Orange County, according to records reviewed by Local 6.

Over a one-year period between October 2013 and September 2014, Orange County Animal Services issued 331 citations to dog owners for failing to control their pets that resulted in a bite.

"Today he has a little scar on his face," said Morales, who claims her grandson is afraid Duke will return someday and attack him again. "He's petrified. He don't want to go out. He doesn't want to ride his bike on the sidewalk."

At least 6 percent of the dog bite victims were children like Henderson, records show. Although in some of cases the dog belonged to the child's family, many times the child was walking outside or playing in their own yard when they were bitten.

Duke's owner, Carolina Cruz, was ordered to pay a $265 fine for the bite, along with an additional $110 fine for allowing the dog to run loose. It was her first offense, records show.

Other dog owners like Wanda Wilkins are more familiar to animal service officers. Since 2013, Wilkins has been cited four times for failing to control her dogs, including two incidents that resulted in injuries. In June, Zion Vilsaint and his brother were walking down Livingston Street when Wilkins' 4-year-old Labrador began chasing them and bit them, according to a citation.

Six dog owners who received citations during the yearlong period were repeat offenders, according to records.

In most cases, animal services officers did not document the seriousness of the victims' injuries on the citations.

"The most severe injury I've had was a dog bit a guy's finger off," said Thomas Nicholl, a former veterinarian who is now an attorney specializing in animal law.

Although Cruz and Wilkins were not sued after their dogs reportedly bit people, they could have been, according to Nicholl.

"In Florida, there is strict liability for dog bites. If you own the dog and the dog bites somebody, you're liable," he said.

There are exceptions if the bite victim is unlawfully on the dog owner's property, such as a burglar, or if the owner has posted a sign indicating the presence of a "bad dog," according to the attorney.

"It can be very difficult for homeowners to get insurance if they have a particular type of dog," said Nicholl, who points out that many insurance policies exclude dog bites. "Although (the insurance companies) may not have a duty to cover, they do have a duty to defend."

Pit bulls and pit-bull mixes were responsible for 35 percent of the reported bites in Orange County, records show. Labradors caused the second highest number of bites at 7 percent. German shepherds and Chihuahuas each made up 6 percent of the bites reported to the county.

Most dogs that bite people are usually allowed to return to their owners, according to the attorney. But in some cases, the county may designate the animal as a "dangerous dog" and order additional safety precautions in order for the owner to keep their pet.

"You've got to neuter the dog. You've got to (microchip) the dog. You've got to have a fence put up. Anytime you take the dog out he's got to be muzzled," said Nicholl.

If a dog designated as dangerous bites again, the animal could be euthanized.

Occasionally, dog owners will voluntarily give up a bite dog, which also leads to the animal being put down. That's what happened to an American bulldog named Matis after it attacked Erica Bolivar in March 2014.

"He kept biting and biting and biting and biting and biting," said Bolivar, who believes the bulldog initially went after her small Chihuahua as they walked down the street.

Records show at least 7 percent of the reported dog bites occurred when someone tried to break up a fight between two dogs or rescue a smaller dog from the jaws of a bigger canine.

"There is always the temptation to separate them, and this creates a big legal problem because you may well get bitten by doing it," said Nicholl. "Sometimes you don't know which dog did it. It might be your own dog that bit you."