Md. bill would make all dog owners liable for an attack regardless of breed

Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed the lawyer who handled the lawsuit in a 2007 dog attack. His name is Kevin, not Kenneth. This version has been corrected.

Ten-year-old Dominic Solesky was in the alley behind his home in Towson, Md., plotting to ambush his buddies in a game of “war.”

Then his neighbor’s pit bull ambushed him.

The 2007 attack severed Dominic’s femoral artery and scarred his face and body. It also led to a court case that presented Maryland with a tough legal question: How much responsibility does a dog owner have when the animal attacks someone? And does that liability extend to the pet owner’s landlord?

The Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that pit bull owners are liable even if there is no prior evidence that their dogs might bite — and their landlords can be liable, too. The decision triggered a sharp increase in the number of pit bulls sent to shelters and prompted some landlords to tell tenants to get rid of their pit bulls or move out.

Now the Maryland General Assembly is close to undoing that 2012 decision. Lawmakers are set to approve a measure that would apply regardless of breed and presumes that all dog owners can be held liable for a bite even if a dog has not bitten anyone before. But the legislation also would allow the pet owner to neutralize that legal presumption, and avoid liability, if they can prove their dogs had been docile except for the biting incident.

Similar versions of the legislation have passed in the House and Senate, but both chambers must approve a single bill before it can go to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to be signed into law.

Sponsors say the bills are intended to rebalance the rights of dog-bite victims, pet owners and landlords. Critics see the measures as a step backward for victims and accuse lawmakers of bowing in an election year to well-financed groups of animal lovers. Organizations such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Best Friends Animal Society and the Humane Society of the United States have been vocal in their opposition to the Solesky decision, holding rallies, issuing news releases and lining up to testify at hearings.

“Everyone wants to talk about the dog first — more than they do about the victims who are mauled or dead,” said Kevin A. Dunne, a lawyer who handled the lawsuit involving Dominic.

Although the overwhelming number of dog attacks on people are not fatal, several recent deaths have renewed debate about the ferocity of some breeds. Those killed include a 13-year-old boy mauled by a bull mastiff in Paterson, N.J.; a woman in Dayton, Ohio; and a 3-year-old girl attacked by her family’s pit bull in High Point, N.C.

A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 279 people were killed by dogs between 1979 and 1994; 79 of the deaths were caused by pit bulls or pit bull mixes.

Though other dogs may bite as frequently — Chihuahuas figure high on the list of biters, according to veterinary studies cited by the appeals court — they and other lap dogs are unlikely to inflict much harm.

In 2010, 4,880 people were treated for dog bites in Maryland emergency rooms and then released, a decline from 5,447 in 2005, a study by Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services found. The number of bite-related hospital admissions increased in about that same period, from 181 in 2005 to 233 in 2011.

State Farm Insurance, the state’s largest underwriter of homeowners insurance, paid out nearly $1.6 million for 51 dog-bite claims in Maryland in 2012 — about $31,000 per victim.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) pushed for a dog-bite bill that would have made the pet owner liable regardless of the animal’s past behavior, unless it could be shown that the victim trespassed or provoked the attack. But critics said that standard amounted to “strict liability” — meaning there was virtually no justifiable defense against a legal claim.

Others lawmakers say a pet owner should not be held responsible if there was no previous indication that the dog might attack someone — a position dismissed by critics as the “one-free-bite” rule. Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), whose golden retriever bit a child almost 20 years ago, said it makes no sense to hold pet owners more strictly liable than one can hold a company whose products accidentally harm someone.

Until the 4 to 3 ruling in Tracey v. Solesky, in order for the pet owner to be held liable, plaintiffs in Maryland had to prove that dog owners knew or should have known that their pet was vicious. Similar standards apply in Virginia and the District.

The Solesky ruling modified that legal threshold for those who had pit bulls and pit bull mixes, finding that dogs of that breed are inherently dangerous because of their combative instincts and powerful ability to inflict damage. The court later modified its ruling to apply only to purebred pit bulls.

Animal advocates said the court was unfairly stigmatizing pit bulls and had failed to indicate how one could even prove that an animal was a pit bull without resorting to DNA testing.

“It’s not logical to say one type of dog acts a certain way,” said Tina Regester, a spokeswoman for the Maryland SPCA. She said an individual dog’s behavior is the result of genetics, upbringing, socialization and training.

The compromise moving through the General Assembly was sponsored by Simmons and Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery). They say their measure enhances protections for dog-bite victims because it preserves the presumption of liability and extends it to all breeds. Critics say that the presumption is easily neutralized, however, because the dog owner can offer proof the dog had been docile before the bite.

“It’s basically allowing the owner to say, ‘I didn’t know the dog was vicious,’ ” said Cynthia Sprehe, 57, whose daughter and pet were attacked by a neighbor’s pit bull in Timonium about three years ago.

Ruby Sprehe, now 15, suffered minor bites and bruises and considerable psychological trauma from the attack, her mother said. Their dog, a 13-pound Havanese named Guido, nearly died, needing 70 stitches in addition to treatment for broken ribs and a punctured lung.

Despite a ruling by the Baltimore Animal Hearing Board that the pit bull, named Molly, was a “dangerous animal” and not properly licensed, Sprehe said her family had to file a lawsuit to recover medical and veterinary bills.

Molly’s owner, Jeffrey D. Wells, said Sprehe’s lawsuit was a way “to line her pockets.” His homeowners’ insurance paid $67,000 to settle Sprehe’s lawsuit, Wells said, then told him to switch carriers.

Wells said he felt terrible about what happened to Guido and had offered to pay the vet bills. But he said he thinks that if a dog has no history of attacking other animals or people, the owner shouldn’t automatically be held liable.

The owner of the pit bull that attacked Dominic Solesky declared bankruptcy and was unable to pay damages to the family. But the court ruling enabled them to collect enough from the pet owner’s landlord to cover Dominic’s medical bills.

Dominic, now 17, said he remembers hearing a rattling noise as the pit bull, named Clifford, climbed a four-foot fence and charged toward him. He remembers being knocked over, grabbed by the face and shaken, like a toy. What he remembers most of all, he said, is the sound of his own blood hitting the pavement and thinking that he would die.

After five hours of surgery, Dominic spent 17 days at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a year in rehabilitation. His left leg still lacks full range of motion.

He and his father, Anthony Solesky, 53, say the appeals court got it right: Pit bulls are more dangerous than other dogs. But they also say that regardless of breed, owners are responsible when their dogs injure someone.

“Saying that a dog is nice doesn’t mean that it can’t hurt somebody,” Dominic said. “Any person could be really nice and then still go and kill somebody.”

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