IN APRIL 2007, a neighbor’s pit bull mauled and nearly killed a 10-year-old Maryland boy named Dominic Solesky behind his family’s house in East Towson. With a pit bull’s classic locked jaw, the dog mauled the entirety of Dominic’s small body and punctured his femoral artery — usually a fatal injury. After five hours of surgery, more than two weeks in the pediatric intensive-care unit and a year in rehabilitation, it’s nothing short of a miracle that Dominic Solesky lived to tell the tale.
The Solesky family sued the pit bull’s landlord and owner; the latter filed for bankruptcy immediately. The landlord found a loophole in Maryland law requiring landlords and owners to have actual knowledge of a dog’s violent nature before they could be held liable.
Ultimately, the case went before the Maryland Court of Appeals, and in May the court essentially recast the state’s age-old conventional wisdom on dog attacks. Although more than 30 states and the District have owner liability statutes, the court went further, singling out pit bulls as “inherently dangerous.” Maryland is now the only state with a breed-specific liability law on the books. For the time being, residents who own — or lease property to someone who owns — a pit bull are legally responsible for any attacks the dog commits.
In light of tragic cases such as Dominic Solesky’s and various others from the past decade, the court’s ruling is understandable and, at times, thoroughly convincing. But so are the claims of animal rights activists and others who object to the controversial science used to justify a breed-specific statute like this one. After all, there’s no practical way to identity which dogs are pit bulls, and there’s little evidence to show that pit bulls aren’t more prone to violence because of training instead of breed.
Unfortunately, the court’s ruling has led only to further dispute. To remedy the situation, state legislators have proposed a bill that would expand the same liability to the owners of all dogs, regardless of breed. Maryland could then join ranks with the vast majority of other states — and the District, as well — that have adopted similar measures.
In a special session otherwise dominated by the question of whether to expand casino gambling, the General Assembly should adopt a version of this legislation.
The bill isn’t perfect, but postponing concrete action any further, as critics propose, is unwise. Maryland’s goal should be to increase safety and recourse for dog attack victims as soon as possible. While they still have time, lawmakers should focus on that instead of the technicalities.