After twice failing to agree with the House on a liability standard for dog bites, Maryland’s Senate will consider a so-called compromise, reluctantly supported Thursday night by its Judicial Proceedings Committee.
The bill seeks to overturn a controversial Court of Appeals ruling from 2012, Tracey v. Solesky, that holds landlords strictly liable for injuries and that declared pit bulls inherently dangerous.
While the chambers agree on the need for breed neutrality and a lesser standard for landlords under the law, holding dog owners strictly liable has been a non-starter in the House, which last year killed the effort to overturn Solesky.
Committee Chair Sen. Brian E. Frosh — who is running for attorney general — introduced a so-called compromise that would overturn Solesky, while also allowing owners of dogs that cause harm to have their cases heard by juries.
Frosh and Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville met over the summer to draft the bill. Simmons was a strong voice in the House against a strict liability standard last year. Strict liability holds someone legally responsible for damages and loss regardless of fault.
“What this bill does is it moves the needle half-way,” Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase said in an offline meeting Thursday night.
“Just because the House of Delegates or a member of it doesn’t like a bill and has exerted his will over the last couple of years, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the right thing,” Sen. Robert A. Zirkin said. “I don’t care what Del. Simmons thinks. We’re the Senate.”
In an impassioned speech, Zirkin (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills asked the committee to change Frosh’s bill back to the strict liability standard the Senate has favored in the past, saying that holding owners liable for harm caused by their dog is “the right public policy.”
“I agree, we would be best off under strict liability, it makes the most sense, but we’re not getting it. I’ve been to that train wreck twice. It’s not one delegate,” Frosh said. “There’s nobody who agrees with me or with Bobby who is strong enough, or loud enough, or capable enough to carry the ball and get it over the finish line in the House of Delegates.”
Passing strict liability will get Maryland nowhere, Frosh said. “We’ll be stuck where we are today.”
Reluctantly voting against Zirkin’s amendment, Sen. Christopher B. Shank (R-Dist. 2) of Hagerstown said he too saw no discernible path where the committee could pass strict liability and the Senate’s version of the bill would get shut down yet again by the House.
“I don’t think we can go another year without resolving this,” Shank said.
Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park also reluctantly voted to send Frosh’s bill unamended to the Senate floor.
“I agree with every word he [Zirkin] spoke as a matter of principle, but as a matter of strategy at this point, I’m going to vote no,” Raskin said.
Zirkin said the Senate was bowing to the will of the House.
“Never, in the 16 years I’ve been down here, have I seen the Senate bow to the will of the house like this,” Zirkin said.
The bill moves to the Senate for a full vote.