First bite could cost owners of all dogs in Maryland

Ruling on pit bulls prompted change

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ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers could make all dog owners liable for their dog’s first bite in response to an April court ruling that classified only pit bulls as “inherently dangerous.”

A 10-member task force of Senate and House members heard testimony Tuesday in response to the Court of Appeals ruling. It excludes pit bulls and pit bull mixes from the state’s so-called “one-bite law,” which only holds dog owners responsible for a bite or attack if the dog previously had bitten or threatened another person.

Many animal-rights advocates call the ruling unfair discrimination against the dogs and their owners, and the task force could recommend legislation next week that would effectively cancel out the decision.

One option they discussed Tuesday was to getrid of the one-bite law and hold all owners liable from the first violent incident — a move that many lawmakers and activists said would put pit bulls back on equal footing with other breeds and force all dog owners to be more responsible.

“I do get a feeling that a consensus is building around an approach that would be assuring strict liability,” said Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat and task force member. “We’re trying to strike the right balance here between trying to protect [attack victims] and wanting to remedy the problem that was created by the court ruling.”

Many other states already hold owners of all breeds liable from the first bite, and the proposal appeared to draw near-unanimous approval Tuesday from supporters and opponents of the Court of Appeals ruling.

The court rendered its opinion in response to a case in which Dominic Solesky, then 10 years old, was attacked in 2007 and severely injured by a pit bull that escaped from its owners’ pen.

Dominic’s parents — Anthony and Irene Solesky — testified that they think many activists are focusing too closely on the welfare of dogs and ignoring the welfare of victims.

“I don’t want to see anybody lose their dog, but I almost lost my son that day,” said Mrs. Solesky. “That’s something that needs to be recognized loud and clear.”

The much thornier issue at Tuesday’s hearing was whether lawmakers should combat a portion of the court ruling that extends liability to landlords who knowingly rent to pit bull owners.

Many activists worry that the decision will force many owners to give their dogs away or face eviction.

Critics at the hearing argued that the ruling would be highly difficult to enforce, as even experts often have difficulty identifying the lineage of mix-breed dogs.

“The opinion gives us no guidance about what a pit bull is or what a pit bull mix is, or how much of a mix is going to trigger this ‘inherently dangerous’ tag,” said Heidi Meinzer, secretary of the Maryland State Bar Association Animal Law Section.

Not everyone in attendance opposed the Court of Appeals opinion.

Teresa Lynn Chagrin, animal care and control specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, praised the court and said the ruling will discourage potentially neglectful or abusive owners from adopting the dogs.

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