When I say that the General Assembly of our state is going to the dogs, I mean it literally, not just figuratively. One of the most noted bills pending before the legislature attempts to revise decisions of the Maryland Court of Appeals on the liability of pit bull owners and landlords with such dogs on their property. This compromise bill has wide backing among legislatures and is worthy of public support as well.
In 2007, 10-year-old Dominick Solesky was badly mauled by a pit bull, barely surviving the attack. With little hope of gaining recompense from the dog’s owner, the boy’s family sued a deeper pocket, the owner’s landlord. The case reached the Court of Appeals, which controversially ruled last April that “a pit bull or any dog with pit bull ancestry shall be deemed hence forth vicious and inherently dangerous as a matter of law” (Tracey v. Solesky).
As a result, the court ruled that victims bringing dog attack cases need not prove negligence. Maryland became the only state in which both owners and landlords with dogs on their properties were automatically liable for injurious actions of a particular breed of dog, whether or not they have acted negligently in the care or control of the dog. Strict liability also could apply to kennel owners, veterinarians, groomers, dog walkers and sitters, or anyone who has a pit bull under their control. The decision raised a howl of protest from animal advocacy groups, dog owners and landlords.
The decision applies only to pit bulls. However, the definition of a pit bull is vague and subjective. According to the Humane Society of the United States, “‘pit bull’ is not a breed of dog at all, but rather a generic term typically used to group three breeds of dogs. … Unfortunately, many people guess at whether a dog is a ‘pit bull’ based on appearance, and they are wrong more often than not.” The decision left many dog owners with the Hobson’s Choice of abandoning their pets or their residence.
In August, the court modified this decision in a rare reconsideration of a settled case. It did not back off its strict liability standard, but now applied it only to “pure breed,” not mixed-breed, pit bulls. The new ruling solved nothing. In effect, it adopted a reverse canine version of the notorious “one drop rule” on human ancestry. During the segregation era, in Maryland and other Southern states people with virtually any black ancestry would be considered black under the law and subject to exclusion from all-white schools and public facilities. Now, only pit bulls presumably without a drop of blood from other breeds would be covered by the new ruling.
It is difficult enough to determine human ancestry, and far more vexing when it comes to dogs. But think of the fortune to be made by “trace your doggie ancestry” books and websites. After these decisions, hounded landlords began banning dogs from their properties, and some owners abandoned their pit bulls to animal shelters.
The bill before the General Assembly, sponsored by Montgomery County Delegate Luiz Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville, would put an end to all this business. The legislation would eliminate the court’s pit bull-specific standard and instead implement uniform rules for owners of all dogs, regardless of the animal’s breed. In the event of an attack by a dog, the proposed legislation would create a rebuttable presumption that the owner knew or should have known that its dog was dangerous. The bill thus provides protections for both dog owners and the victims of canine attacks. It would also exempt landlords from responsibility for dog bites inflicted by a pet owned by tenants.
Some dog advocates, attorneys and members of the General Assembly have opposed the bill for providing less protection to the victims of dog bites than the court’s strict liability standard. However, the bill is backed by many other legislators, the Humane Society of the United States and key members of the Montgomery County state House and Senate delegations, including Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase and Del. Kumar Barve (D-Dist. 17) of Gaithersburg, the majority leader in the House of Delegates.
In announcing his support for the bill, Barve aptly noted that, the bill “provides greater protection to the public for compensation for injuries or death caused by a dog, and the legislation is not breed specific.” Somewhat similar legislation failed to pass in last August’s special session. In this round, the House and Senate already have held hearings on the compromise bill. It is time for legislators to stop yapping and pass the bill.
Allan J. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University and a national political analyst. His email address is email@example.com.