PIT BULLS ARE banned as pets in much of Europe and in some localities across the United States, including Prince George’s County, on account of their involvement in a disproportionate number of lethal attacks on people. A bitter debate has raged for years about whether they are an “inherently dangerous” breed, as Maryland’s highest court ruled last year, or simply spirited pets that tend to attract bad owners — those mainly interested in their prowess as fighters and guard dogs — as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals maintains. In either case, they aren’t likely to disappear from U.S. households anytime soon, meaning that state and local lawmakers are left to make rules governing liability for attacks.
In Annapolis, legislators have tried for months to come up with rules, so far unsuccessfully. Their efforts are impelled by a ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals last year that singled out pit bulls for special legal treatment, making their owners and landlords almost automatically responsible when a dog bites someone.
Most lawmakers believe it’s unworkable to set a rule that applies uniquely to pit bulls, as the court did. We agree. Whether or not pit bulls are inherently dangerous, they’re hardly the only breed that might bite or maul. On top of that, it isn’t always easy to determine whether a dog can be classified as a purebred pit bull.
Clearly, Maryland’s old rule, which excused dog owners from blame or responsibility for an attack if the pet was a first-time offender, was inadequate. As a matter of public safety, it makes more sense to expect owners to prove that their dogs are not dangerous.
But in trying to set standards governing liability, the two houses of the General Assembly have reached what looks like an impasse. A bill in the state Senate would require a dog owner seeking to avoid liability from an attack to provide “clear and convincing” proof that he was unaware of his pet’s aggressive tendencies. The bill in the House of Delegates is similar but requires owners to show only that a preponderance of the evidence indicated that the dog would not harm someone.
It’s fair to wonder if either is workable: After all, how would dog owners go about proving a negative in the first place?
But as a matter of practical significance in the real world, lawmakers have to settle on a compromise. In the absence of one, landlords have already shown they are prepared to evict tenants who own pit bills, forcing dog owners to choose between keeping their homes or keeping their pets. That’s unfair, and it’s exactly the kind of problem that legislators are paid to resolve.