The latter approach has been taken by most states and might sound logical to anyone caught on the closing end of a canine’s cuspids. But amid protests, the emotional pleas of animal-rights groups and lobbying by the insurance industry, it remains unclear whether the General Assembly will coalesce around the plan before its special session ends, probably next week.
The issue has become an urgent sidebar to the debate over expanding casino gambling that called lawmakers back to Annapolis. But it’s far from the socially significant statements — such as legalizing same-sex marriage — that Maryland’s Democratic-controlled legislature has sought to make this year.
Pushing back against what many lawmakers see as the latest in a string of activist rulings by the state’s highest court, a Senate committee Thursday passed a measure that would come to the defense of pit bull owners by creating equally strict liability for all Maryland dog owners.
If passed, the change could affect Marylanders as much as any recent change in state law, critics warned, possibly leading to new insurance requirements for dog owners, renters, homeowners, and possibly landlords.
In many ways, the legislation is the latest in a series of recent conflicts between the state’s legislative and judicial branches.
Tension has ratcheted up in the past two years between the General Assembly and Maryland’s high court, the Court of Appeals. Rulings by the high court on lead paint, land rights and representation for criminal suspects at bond hearings have repeatedly sent lawmakers back to the drawing board to rewrite state statutes.
In May, the court rewrote a near-century-old consensus in state law in a case stemming from a 2007 attack on a Towson boy. The court said it was one of at least seven serious attacks in 13 years in which disagreements over liability had risen to the level of the state’s highest courts.
Because the legislature had not acted, the court did, declaring that the cases demonstrated that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous.” And given that designation, the court said, it would no longer be necessary for Marylanders to prove a particular pit bull or pit bull crossbreed had a history of violence to hold its owners responsible. Simply owning one — or even letting someone who owns one rent property — would constitute strict liability if the animal injured someone.
The ruling was put on hold last month, pending an appeal that also will be heard by the state high court. But landlords and property managers across the state threatened to evict some pit bull owners. It also put Maryland at odds with 49 other states: Although at least 33 and the District have adopted laws establishing owner liability for dog bites, none has a statute specific to a type of dog.