by Tom Schild
The Maryland Court of Appeals — the highest state court — has changed the long-standing legal standard for landlord liability to victims of attacks by pit bulls and cross-bred pit bulls which occur on leased property.
In a landmark ruling in Tracey v. Solesky, the appeals court changed the “common law” of prior court decisions that a landlord is liable for the actions of a pit bull kept by a tenant only if the landlord had knowledge of “past vicious behavior” of that particular dog.
The new legal standard adopted by the 4-3 court decision on April 26 is that the dog owner and others who have “the right to control the pit bull’s presence” and knows, or has reason to know, that the dog is a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull mix will be liable for injuries caused by the dog.
Concluding that pit bulls or cross-bred pit bulls are “inherently dangerous”, the appeals court specifically ruled that the new strict liability standard applied to a “landlord who has the right and/or opportunity to prohibit such dogs on leased premises.” This could expose landlords and their management companies to liability for attacks by such dogs merely by allowing these breeds to be kept on the leased property.
For other dog breeds, the “common law” is unchanged and it will still be necessary to show knowledge of the prior vicious behavior of a particular dog in order to establish liability for a dog attack.
In a vigorous dissenting opinion, 3 of 7 appeals court judges opposed the new strict liability standard, noting that it applies to any dog “with a trace of pit bull ancestry” without any guidance how that is to be determined.
Although the court ruling involved a rental property, it applies broadly to others who have the “right to control” the presence of pit bulls — which includes condominiums and homeowner associations. To avoid liability for attacks by pit bulls and pit bull mixed breed dogs, landlords, condos and HOAs now may decide to prohibit such breeds.