Maryland lawmakers will try again to free the state’s pit bulls from breed-specific restrictions that hold landlords and owners strictly liable if a pit bull bites.
State Sen. Brian E. Frosh and Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons are behind legislation for the upcoming session of the General Assembly that would repeal the strict liability imposed by a 2012 high court decision. Strict liability holds someone legally responsible for damages and loss regardless of fault.
Their legislation would provide more protections for victims, but it would allow owners or landlords to make a defense if they had no prior indication the dog was dangerous.
In its landmark April 2012 Solesky decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals held a landlord liable when a pit bull mauled a 10-year-old in Baltimore County.
In its decision, the court declared pure-bred pit bulls and pit bull mixes “inherently dangerous.” The court later limited its decision to pure-bred pit bulls.
But the court’s ruling established that pit bull owners and landlords who know a pit bull is living on their property can be held strictly liable even if they didn’t have knowledge that the dog was dangerous. Under common law, to hold a dog owner strictly liable, the victim must prove that the owner knew or should have known the dog had vicious or dangerous tendency.
Animal-rights advocates, rescuers and lawmakers claimed the decision threatened homes and insurance protection for renters who have pit bulls. They argued it could force owners to surrender their pit bulls into an already overcrowded system, where many faced being put to death.
“People have been living with the concern that they will lose their pet or their home,” Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase said. “We want to make sure that victims of attacks by dogs are treated fairly under the law but we also want to make sure people’s pets aren’t treated unfairly.”
The General Assembly failed to pass legislation in response to the Solesky decision in 2012 and 2013.
The Senate and House could not agree on how owners of all dog breeds should be held liable for harm caused by their pet.
After major differences of opinion between the chambers, a conference committee tried to iron out a compromise, but the House could not swallow the new provisions.
The conference committee bill would have held all dog owners strictly liable when their pets bite a child 12 years old and younger, with a lesser burden for victims older than 12. Members of the conference committee said the bill was a compromise, but some House members wouldn’t accept the strict liability provision, saying it put too much of a burden on dog owners and could lead to more litigation and higher homeowners’ insurance premiums.
Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville requested an investigation into dog bites in Maryland and other states by the Department of Legislative Services.
In its November report, titled “Dog Bites in Maryland and Other States: Data, Insurance Coverage and Liability,” the Department of Legislative Services found that since 2005, only one death in Maryland was attributed to a dog bite.
Compared to other states, Maryland has an average number of dog bite injuries, the report said, noting that very few states had data available.
Among injuries from external causes — such as from motor vehicle accidents, firearms, water, fire, machinery, falls, medications and more — dogs bites accounted for about 1 percent. Maryland logged about 465,000 externally caused injuries in 2010, of which about 4,800 were dog bites.
“The facts are an antidote to the epidemic of disinformation and factoids about dog bites and the histrionics that have accompanied it,” Simmons said in a statement provided to The Gazette.
Simmons said he and Frosh worked together on a bill for the 2014 session that repeals the strict liability imposed by Solesky while also increasing protections for victims and allowing all dog owners a defense.
Frosh said he is optimistic the General Assembly will “get it done” this time when it comes to dog bites.
“We don’t want gentle animals to be the cause of someone losing his or her apartment and we don’t want to have to put gentle animals to death,” he said.