- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Lawmakers might have to wait until next year to change the state’s laws on dog bites because the likelihood of a summer special session is fading.

Members of a task force charged with examining the effects of a Court of Appeals ruling in April that classified pit bulls as an “inherently dangerous” breed said a bill to counteract the opinion will likely have to wait until the 2013 legislative session starts in January.

Animal-rights activists say this legislation is urgently needed to prevent many pit bull owners from having to give away their dogs or face eviction, but some task force members say they will benefit from having more time to reach a decision.

“I think we need to be very deliberate and have the opportunity to carefully vet whatever it is we’re contemplating,” said Delegate Benjamin F. Kramer, Montgomery Democrat. “I don’t think we want to end up exacerbating the situation.”

The task force originally planned to recommend legislation Tuesday. Members — five senators and five delegates — discussed the issue but did not finalize a recommendation.

The court ruling determined that pit bull owners and landlords who knowingly rent to them are liable in the first instance of a pit bull attack, even if the dog showed no previous signs of aggression. It excluded pit bulls from Maryland’s so-called “one-bite law,” which holds owners liable for a dog bite only if the dog had previously bitten a person or acted viciously.

Panel members said they are leaning toward getting rid of the one-bite law entirely and making all dog owners liable from the first bite, as well as removing liability for landlords and other outside parties unless they are proven in court to be negligent.

Some members questioned whether such a change would place too heavy a burden on dog owners and discourage people from adopting dogs, but others argued that strict liability is unlikely to affect the attitudes or behavior of most pet owners.

“What we’re really trying to get at here are the irresponsible dog owners,” said Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat. “I think strict liability measures just fine with responsible dog owners because that’s what we all presume we are operating under anyway.”

While most members agree on certain aspects of a possible bill, they acknowledged there are many nuances that must still be resolved.

Lawmakers said they will seek guidance from the 33 states that already have strict liability laws to determine if a change will affect insurance policies and whether legislation should exempt law enforcement and service dogs.

“You can’t solve every problem,” said task force co-chairman Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat. “We just want some general rules that will help make compensation [for dog attack victims] fair and responsible.”

Mr. Frosh said he does not expect a special session, but the task force will continue informal discussions in the coming weeks.

The group would be able to get legislation ready if a special session is called this summer, but Mr. Frosh said he is not expecting to hold another meeting until September or October.

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