TAMPA - You'd like to think it would never happen to your dog. But dog attacks on humans happen more often than you think. Hundreds of times a year in Florida, the dog owners end up in court.
"It wouldn't occur to us to sue our neighbors over some minor injury. Now, things have changed," said animal law expert Mina Morgan.
Not all dog attacks are minor. Some end up with severe injuries or even death. Dog attacks cost Florida pet owners more than $7 million a year, and they could even lead to jail time.
Morgan says the laws in Florida typically work against dog owners. In many states, dog owners are only liable if they know their dog is dangerous. That's not the case in Florida.
"Even if you have no idea your dog might behave dangerously, if your dog bites someone, you're going to be liable," Morgan said.
Hillsborough County regularly holds an "animal court," where a judge reviews cases and determines whether dog owners should receive penalties for negligence.
Recently, Roxanne Carlo of Lutz claimed her dog was chased and attacked by a dog owned by her neighbor, Dinah Bishop. Carlo said the dog attack caused her to fall and break her wrist. She asked the judge to fine Oliver's owner.
"This is a vicious dog. There is a problem. This could happen again," Carlo said, in court.
Bishop argued her dog was not aggressively chasing Carlo's dog, and no actual bite took place. But the judge ruled against her. She was given a $500 fine and ordered to have her dog microchipped and receive training.
Perhaps more importantly, her dog was given a "vicious dog" citation. Another incident could lead to Oliver being confined to home, or even put down, if the case is serious enough.
"To us, I know, he's a big baby. I didn't really think that ruling was fair," Bishop said.
Bishop and Carlo are also in a dispute over Carlo's medical bills, though no civil lawsuit has been filed. The case is one example of hundreds that go through Hillsborough County every year.
One-third of all homeowner's liability insurance claims nationwide are for dog bites, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The average cost of a dog bite claim was $29,752 in 2012.
Homeowners and renters insurance policies typically cover dog bite liability from $100,000 to $300,000. Some insurance companies charge more for owners of breeds that statistically cause more serious bite injuries.
But Morgan says more insurers in Florida are dropping their coverage. That can work to the advantage of dog owners, because many lawyers won't take a dog bite case unless there is money to be made from the insurance company.
Morgan says dog owners should be doing much more to keep their pets out of trouble.
"The best thing to do on your property, if you have a dog, no matter how sweet the dog is, put up a "bad dog" sign. That can protect you if someone comes on the property that is not a guest of yours and gets harmed," Morgan said.
In public, Morgan says owners should avoid bringing their dog into potentially dangerous situations, such as restaurants, bars, or interacting with children. That's where many dog attacks start.
Most important, she says, is to be a responsible dog owner. Keep your dog on a leash, and get your dog neutered.
"The main risk factor for dog bites are unneutered males, so that can do a lot of good," Morgan said.