This column is going to the dogs. In fact, this particular column will be exclusively about dogs — as well as politics and the courts.
In one of the more curious turn of events in its long history, the Maryland Court of Appeals has not once but twice misfired when trying to make drastic revisions in the way litigation involving dogs bites is handled by the courts.
The appellate judges didn’t get it right the first time or the second time.
But then neither did the Maryland General Assembly, which came up with not one but two quite different solutions — and then didn’t bother to figure out which approach would work better. Instead, lawmakers threw up their hands and went home.
You may remember that in April the state’s highest court ruled pure-bred and mix-bred pit bull terriers were “inherently dangerous” animals. That holds enormous ramifications for their human owners, since it means they have no legal defense if their dog bites someone — regardless of the circumstances.
It also makes landlords legally liable. Already, some are informing tenants with pit bulls to clear out or get rid of their animals. For instance, a 1,500-home housing cooperative in Baltimore took that action last week.
The American Kennel Club fears, and rightly so, this will lead to a flood of pit bulls dropped off at overwhelmed shelters and that most of the discarded animals will be euthanized.
The problem with the two judicial decrees is that there’s no scientific research proving their point. “Inherently dangerous” means these dogs’ genes make them unfit to be around people. In other words, they were “born bad.”
The most damning evidence is that during the past 30 years pit bulls, Rottweilers and their associated mixed breeds have accounted for 64 percent of all deadly dog attacks. Pit bulls lead the list by a wide margin.
These dogs historically were bred and trained to fight other animals. Their instincts are to attack, but like any dog, with proper human care they can be docile domestic pets.
Condemning a dog to almost certain death based solely on its breed (we sure wouldn’t do it to humans) badly misses the mark.
First, there’s no such thing as a pure-bred pit bull. No kennel club or animal society considers it a category of dog. But the Maryland Court of Appeals — without any proof — says so.
The pit bull usually is a combination of the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire Bull terrier. Pit bulls are a mixed-up mixed breed.
There are roughly 70,000 of them in Maryland. Only a tiny fraction might be pure-breds. Yet, there’s no DNA test that will prove it. You can’t do it by visual examination, either.
How are trial judges supposed to decide dog-bite cases when there’s mass confusion about what constitutes a pit bull?
Having botched its first attempt to state clearly what it meant, the appeals court made a second attempt this month. Judge Alan Wilner, writing for a majority of judges, admitted they had goofed initially in lumping mixed-breed pit bulls with pure-breds. He called that court action “gratuitous and erroneous.”
Wilner narrowed the April court decree to pure-bred pit bulls. But he never detailed what constitutes that type of dog. Neither did Judge Dale Cathell in the court’s April ruling.
The kennel clubs say emphatically pit bulls are not a canine category. Never have been. That leaves trial judges in a terrible quandary. As a result, we may never see a pure-bred pit bull dog-bite conviction in Maryland. The appeals court has left us with a mass of contradictions and uncertainty.
The General Assembly didn’t help matters. Rather than take time to hammer out a compromise and resolve things at its August special session, lawmakers took the easy way out. They simply didn’t decide.
Some have accused the Court of Appeals of legislating from the bench by discarding common law and then making owners of pit bulls — and only pit bull owners — strictly liable for harm done by their animals.
But lawmakers had a chance to reassert their powers and refused to do so. It was more important to get back to their vacations.
Maybe they’ll do a better job in January.
Left unanswered is what happens in other dog-bite cases that don’t involve that hypothetical pure-bred pit bull.
What about Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds? They can be highly aggressive, even dangerous. What about the Staffordshire terriers and mixed-breed combinations that have resulted over the centuries?
Just this week, a Rottweiler left tied to a parking meter broke its leash and attacked a woman at a crowded farmers’ market in Baltimore.
Yet because neither the appeals court nor the General Assembly addressed the overall problem of a dog owner’s responsibilities in bite cases (except for hypothetical pure-bred pit bulls), that owner may never be held accountable.
As the American Kennel Club stated in an Aug. 9 letter to lawmakers: “We believe that all dog owners should be responsible for their dogs. Breed specific laws or bans fail to address the underlying cause of the issue: irresponsible dog ownership.”
Barry Rascovar is a State House columnist and a communications consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.