Romano: A dog bite dispute in Pasco County gets 'Judge Judy' justice

Photo of Melody Kelly, 50, of New Port Richey at a hospital after being bitten by a neighbor's pit bull in April.
Photo of Melody Kelly, 50, of New Port Richey at a hospital after being bitten by a neighbor's pit bull in April.

This is a story of justice disguised as entertainment. Or maybe entertainment disguised as justice. Either way, it's about a woman bit in the face by a neighbor's dog.

It starts routinely enough on an April day in a nondescript neighborhood in New Port Richey, where Melody Kelly was waiting outside for her husband, along with her Shih Tzu named Molly.

From two doors down, a neighbor's dog came charging toward them. Fearing for her own dog, Kelly, 50, said she picked Molly up as the other dog began circling them.

When Kelly made a move toward the door, she said the dog jumped on her back. Then it bit her elbow. As she screamed for help, she said the dog leaped up and bit her just above her left eye.

Kelly's 18-year-old son Jordan came running out of the house and distracted the dog while she escaped inside. By the time she got in an ambulance, Kelly said the paramedics were debating whether she should be airlifted because a flap of loose skin was obscuring their view of her eye, and they feared she might lose it.

"What if my son hadn't been home?'' Kelly said recently. "It could have gotten my cheek, and ripped my whole face. If it had gone for my throat, I would be dead.''

Kelly described the other dog as a pit bull. The owner, Myline Berrios, says her dog Jayden is more of a lab with some pit bull mixed in.

Berrios says it was the Shih Tzu that was running free, and Jayden got out of the garage and gave chase. She said Kelly's injury was the result of a head-butt, not a bite.

About the only part of the story not in dispute?

Everyone agrees Berrios stopped by the next day with flowers. She apologized and promised to take responsibility for the medical bills.

Five months later, they were all on the Judge Judy show.

Kelly, a part-time bartender, says Berrios stopped responding as bills totaling thousands of dollars began to arrive. Berrios says Kelly was exaggerating the incident and looking to cash in.

Kelly eventually contacted two different law firms and got the same story from each:

Berrios, 32, was renting the house, did not have renter's insurance and did not appear to have much in the way of assets. And the owner of the house had insurance that specifically stated it did not cover dog incidents. All of which meant the attorneys saw little chance of recovering significant funds, so they suggested Kelly seek restitution through small claims court.

And that's where a scout for the Judge Judy show discovered the paperwork.

A producer pitched the idea to Kelly by explaining she could receive as much as $5,000 from the show if the judge ruled in her favor.

The incentive for Berrios was Kelly had to agree any decision was binding and would file no further claims.

Without spoiling too much, the judge ruled in Kelly's favor.

Berrios, who was fined almost $300 by Pasco County for improper confinement of a vicious animal and allowing an animal to run loose, says the show's producers encouraged her to be combative and adjust her version of events for a more dramatic story. She now says she feels duped.

Kelly, meanwhile, says the $5,000 didn't quite cover all her bills, but she figures it was a surer bet than trying to get money out of Berrios. She's undergoing laser treatments to hide the scar above her eye.

"Taking this to Judge Judy means (Berrios) is off the hook forever,'' Kelly said. "She got a trip to Los Angeles, and she got paid for being on the show. It stinks. She lucks out, and I'm scarred for life.''

Berrios says she isn't feeling too lucky these days. "I'm getting dirty looks in my own neighborhood,'' Berrios said. "I'm tired of this. I just want it to be over.''

She'll have to wait a little while longer. The Judge Judy episode is not scheduled to air until later in October.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.