- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2012

Maryland lawmakers tasked with reviewing a court ruling on the danger of pit bulls are scheduled to meet next week to continue the complicated debate on the rights of dog owners, the safety of residents and the protection of the breed.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat and co-chairman of the task force, said the group is set to meet Oct. 25, with the goal “to try to finish what we started.”

“We think we can do better for victims and do better for dog owners than the current law or the decisions by the Court of Appeals,” he said. “We’re essentially trying to carve out a third way.”

The task force was assembled earlier this year after a firestorm of criticism over a Court of Appeals opinion handed down in April, declaring pit bulls and pit bull mixes “inherently dangerous.” The opinion was amended in August to apply only to pure-bred pit bulls, but as Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, Montgomery Democrat, explained, “Nobody knows how to define pure pit bull.”

That legislative pothole, among other concerns from people interested in pit bull legislation, is what the task force needs to tackle once it convenes.

“It’s all over the map,” Ms. Mizeur said. “At the end of the day, is there a way to come to consensus on the law, a policy approach that would protect families from any wrongdoing from a dangerous dog and bad and dangerous dog owners, without harming the average family pet owner whose animal is acting in a responsible way?”

The court handed down its 4-3 decision four years after a pit bull jumped a fence and mauled then-10-year-old Dominic Solesky. His parents sued the landlord of the property where the pit bull lived. The boy’s injuries required multiple surgeries and he spent a year in rehabilitation.

In the original high court opinion, the court stated that dog owners and property owners — such as landlords — were liable if a dog that is a pit bull or pit bull mix attacks a person. The temperament of the dog or whether the animal had a history of violence did not matter.

The ruling had an immediate effect on pit bull and pit bull mix owners, said Kathy Soul, president of the Charm City Pit Bull Project, which offers free spay and neuter operations for Baltimore pit bull owners.

“There have been more than 20 owners that I know of who relinquished their dogs to a shelter because of landlords telling them they were going to evict them,” Ms. Soul said. “I think there’s been many people denied a place to live because of the dog they had.”

Pit bull advocates wanted the ruling overturned immediately, but Ms. Soul said they recognized that when the task force first met this summer, “Everybody was rushing,” and no decision was made.

In mid-August, a special legislative session was called to hash out a gambling expansion bill. The Senate and House both passed different versions of pit bull legislation, but the two chambers could not agree on a compromise. Both bills died.

“We had meetings during the summer. We felt like we were prepared during the special session,” said Sen. Joseph M. Getty, Carroll Republican. “But with a three-day time frame in which to do something, the sides became deadlocked, and when you try to make a decision in three days, you’re probably making a bad decision.”

During the summer, task force members talked about a potential solution in which the strict liability ordered in the court’s opinion — holding pit bull owners responsible for all bites, regardless of the dog’s demeanor or history — could be extended to all dog breeds.

Mr. Getty was the only senator to vote against the Senate’s bill, which extended strict liability to all dog breeds. He said Friday that he did so because “strict liability is when you deal with an inherently dangerous product something that is designed to cause traumatic injury to an individual.”

As a representative of a rural area, Mr. Getty said a lot of his constituents have livestock and animals for protection.

“Dogs are not inherently dangerous,” he said.

Ms. Mizeur said the House bill’s approach was “reverting the common law back to the one-bite rule, except if a dog is running loose.”

Prior to the court’s ruling, liabilities related to dog bites were the same for every breed.

Mr. Getty said the mission of the task force is to find an area of compromise, sentiments echoed by Ms. Mizeur, but with a word of warning.

“We don’t want to do something that tries to fix one problem and unknowingly create a whole other cast of problems,” she said.

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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