Maryland measure defangs pit bull ruling

Liability for bites not specific to breed under new bill

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ANNAPOLIS — A bill that holds dog owners responsible for attacks by their pets, regardless of breed, is headed to the Maryland state Senate floor Friday.

Members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee moved the bill to the full Senate on a 7-2 vote. The bill was proposed in response to a Court of Appeals ruling declaring pit bulls “inherently dangerous.”

Stemming from a 2007 pit bull attack on then-10-year-old Dominic Solesky, the ruling also extended liability for pit bull attacks to anyone with the right to control the dog’s presence, such as landlords.

The decision brought an outcry from pit bull owners and animal rights organizations, prompting the formation of a government task force to examine the ruling.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat and co-chairman of the task force, introduced the bill, which holds all dog owners to the same legal standard. Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, Montgomery County Democrat, and Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, Baltimore Democrat, co-sponsored the bill.

Under the proposed legislation, the first time a person’s dog attacks someone, the owner will face “strict liability” — responsibility for injury even if the owner was not negligent. Landlords will only be held liable if they are determined to be negligent.

“Whether it’s a poodle or a pit bull, the owner is responsible for that,” Mr. Frosh said.

Before the April ruling, a victim of a dog attack filing a lawsuit had to prove the owner knew the dog had a history of violence.

Thirty-five states and Washington, D.C., already enforce strict liability for dog attacks.

Landlords, dog owners, animal rights activists and members of the pet industry testified in favor of the bill and urged the committee to pass it during the special session.

“There’s a really critical need to address these issues,” said Tami Santelli, state director of the Humane Society of the United States.

Making landlords liable for the actions of a tenant’s dog will force renters to choose between their pet and their home, Ms. Santelli said.

Dominic’s father, Anthony Solesky, and lawyer Kevin Dunne testified against the bill, saying that landlords must still be held responsible. They did not oppose extending strict liability for owners to all breeds of dogs.

In his written testimony, Mr. Dunne said that by removing landlords’ liability, “those who could actually be in a position to prevent these attacks and to pay the victim’s medical bills will be out of the picture.”

When the Soleskys sued the owner of the pit bull that attacked Dominic, the owner filed for bankruptcy and was able to avoid liability. The bill does not ensure victims will be compensated, said Mr. Dunne.

Mr. Frosh said that not everyone is 100 percent happy with the measure, but he is confident he will get a bill out of the Senate.

“We cleared a big hurdle today,” he said.

An hour before the hearing, more than 60 pit bull advocates gathered in front of the State House to ask the General Assembly to address the ruling during the special session.

Members of Maryland Votes for Animals, a political action committee, organized the gathering.

Those in attendance wore T-shirts with slogans such as “Stop breed discrimination laws in MD” and “Punish the deed, not the breed.”

Linda Martin from Parkville showed up to defend her four-year-old pit bull Rambo.

“My dog, he’s not dangerous. I’ve never met a pit bull that’s dangerous,” she said.

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