Law to aid pit bull owners could make all Md. dog owners liable for bites

Maryland lawmakers advanced a measure Thursday that would create yet another schism in life in the Washington region, making the Potomac a dividing line between legal poles on liability for dog bites.

In Virginia, as in 13 other states, an owner can often avoid legal responsibility for a dog’s first bite if the pet has no history of violence. In Maryland, legislators’ proposed response to a recent court ruling — one that singled out owners of pit bulls — could make owners of all dogs liable for any bite, including the first.

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.

Hundreds of Maryland pit bull owners and members of animal-rights groups rallied Thursday outside the State House. Most said they would support legislation to hold all dog owners equally responsible if it stripped away the court’s designation of pit bulls as inherently dangerous.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said he was hopeful the Senate would endorse the legislation, which passed his committee 7 to 2, but he was uncertain of its reception in the House of Delegates.

“Everybody thinks they can do better than what the court did,” he said, “but who wants what and how they want it characterized in law, is still way up in the air.”

Frosh co-chaired a task force that legislative leaders set up to draft emergency legislation in response to the court ruling. The group zeroed in on the plan advanced Thursday. In addition to blanket liability for dog owners, it would insulate landlords from the strict liability that they would be subject to under the court ruling.

Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) — one of several lawmakers who balked at the bill — said it could do more harm than the court ruling by placing a burden on all Maryland dog owners.

He warned that the bill doesn’t spell out specific exceptions for dogs that are provoked or for cases involving trespassing. Kramer is advocating an alternative that would set aside the court ruling for a year and let lawmakers draft a more thorough bill in the 2013 session, which begins in January.

“We need a full-blown bill hearing — not to just jam this down everyone’s throat as happens in a special session,” Kramer said.

In private meetings with lawmakers, insurance industry lobbyists have opposed parts of the bill, as well as any effort to increase liability of landlords. Nationwide, dog bites account for the largest share of homeowner liability claim payments, according to insurance industry statistics. In 2011, more than 16,000 claims paid out a total of about $479 million to victims, or nearly $30,000 per claim.

If the legislature fails to reach agreement, three Court of Appeals judges who dissented from the ruling in May predicted that the decision could soon create chaos in Maryland courts.

Judge Clayton Greene Jr. called the ruling “unenlightening and unworkable,” in part because it left unclear the definition of a pit bull. “How much ‘pit bull’ must there be in a dog?” he wrote, noting that Rottweilers, chow chows, mastiffs and Presa Canarios are among breeds that have been mistaken for pit bulls.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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