After an outcry from pet owners and landlords, lawmakers in Annapolis introduced legislation Thursday to overturn a Court of Appeals ruling that called pit bulls inherently dangerous.
The proposed legislation frees from strict liability landlords and others who have the dog in their care and treats all dogs equally, regardless of their breed.
But the law also offers new protection for victims of dog bites because it shifts to owners the responsibility to prove that their pets never had a tendency toward violent or aggressive behavior.
“We think the compromise is fair to victims, to owners and to landlords,” said Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Dist 16) of Chevy Chase, who is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate. He said the bill doesn’t single out a breed as dangerous.
The Maryland Court of Appeals in April ruled pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs are inherently dangerous, and owners and landlords who allow them on their property should be held liable if the dog causes death or injury, even if the animal had never shown a propensity for violence. The case, Tracey v. Solesky, stemmed from an attack by a pit bull on a 10-year-old.
Activists say the court’s decision has resulted in families who own pit bulls being turned out of rental housing, and shelters are being inundated with dogs given up by owners afraid or unable to keep them.
Referring to the new legislation, Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville said, “Landlords are not liable for the behavior of a tenant’s dog, unless they knew about its vicious or dangerous propensities. That takes away the impetus to get rid of tenants with dogs.”
Simmons co-chaired with Frosh a task force to recommend legislation to address the issues arising from the Solesky case.
The Task Force to Study Court Decision Regarding Pit Bulls was convened in May and was asked to propose legislation.
“On the task force, there were some who felt the owner should be responsible for any bite a dog does, ever,” said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Dist. 27A) of Upper Marlboro, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “But this relieves the plaintiff of the obligation to go out and find someone who will say, ‘This dog is vicious.’”
Under the proposed legislation, when a dog does bite, the burden is on the owner to prove that it is not vicious, rather than the victim having to prove that it is.
Vallario’s committee is scheduled to hear the bill Jan. 30.
During a special session of the General Assembly in August, legislators introduced bills in the House and Senate to resolve the issue, but key differences between the proposals in the two chambers remained, and the session ended before they could reconcile.