Legislation overriding a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that made landlords liable for pit bull attacks, and put owners at risk of being evicted or having to give up their dogs, will be heard Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee.
Identical House and Senate bills seek to create a new standard where all dog owners in civil action cases, regardless of the dog’s breed, are presumed liable for attacks unless owners can prove they did everything possible to avoid the attack, said Sen. Brian Frosh, sponsor of the Senate bill. It would also reverse the strict liability on landlords.
“The interest groups: pet owners, landlords, and animal rights groups
are pleased with it,” said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who is also chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
In April, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in Tracey v. Solesky that owning pit bulls or allowing them on your property is an “inherently dangerous activity.” The ruling made owners of pit bulls and pit bull mixes, as well as their landlords, automatically liable for dog attacks. In August, the court narrowed the ruling to include only pure-breed pit bulls.
The decision was part of a case involving Dominic Solesky, who was 10-years old when he was attacked by a pit bull named Clifford while playing Nerf tag in a Towson alley in 2007.
Solesky suffered severe wounds to his leg, which the Court of Appeals called "gruesome." The boy underwent five hours of surgery and multiple blood transfusions during a 17-day hospital stay.
The Humane Society of the United States is urging the legislature to pass the bill quickly. Following the April 2012 court decision, some Maryland shelters saw an influx of pit bulls being given up for adoption when landlords throughout the state began banning them for fear of being sued if the dogs attacked.
“One of the most important things this bill does is it removes the liability for landlords and other third parties,” said Tami Santelli, Maryland state director for the Humane Society of the United States. “Because of the strict liability for landlords, people throughout Maryland were given warning that they had to get rid of their dogs or move out.”
Prior to the Solesky case, Maryland courts used the “one-bite rule,” which said dog owners were only at fault for an attack if they knew their dogs had vicious tendencies.
During an August special session, the Maryland House considered a bill that would have revoked liability for landlords and placed dog owners under strict liability for attacks unless they could prove the victim provoked the dog into attacking. The bill did not pass.
“This bill is a really fair compromise given what was being considered during the special session in August,” Santelli said. “It’s fair for both victims of dog bites and dog owners.”
Controversial breed-specific legislation has been around for decades. As early as 1987, the city of Yakima, WA, banned pit bulls.
Over time, cities and counties nationwide have passed various breed-specific laws, ranging from requiring owners to register the dogs, to completely banning breeds. Prince George’s County outlawed new pit bulls in 1997.
In contrast to the Maryland court’s stance, Virginia’s state code explicitly prohibits local governments from labeling specific breeds as dangerous. The law allows local governments to regulate ownership of dangerous dogs, but says dogs cannot be banned or labeled dangerous on the basis of breed alone.
The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear the House version of the bill at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is scheduled to hear Frosh's bill at 1 p.m. Feb. 5.
Baltimore pit bull advocacy group B-More Dog is organizing a rally
Wednesday from 12:30-2:30 p.m. at Lawyer’s Mall prior to the House hearing.
Patch Associate Regional Editor Bryan P. Sears contributed to this article.