Pit Bull Legislation Stalls

by Tom Schild

After considering several bills regarding liability for injuries caused by dogs, the Maryland General Assembly has adjourned until January 2012 without enacting any dog bite legislation.

During the recent Special Session, the Senate and House passed different versions of legislation which would impose dog bite liability on landlords and others who have the right to control the presence of dogs on their property only where there is knowledge of a particular dog’s presence and vicious propensity.  This would have restored the negligence standard of liability modified by a recent appeals cout decision with respect to injuries caused by pit bulls and mixed breed pit bulls.

For dog owners, the proposed dog bite legislation would have extended the strict liability standard to injuries caused by all breeds of dogs, with a few exceptions for specific circumstances.

After passing casino legislation, the General Assembly adjourned on August 15 without taking final action on the dog bite bills.

Appeals Court Ruling–Strict Liability for Pit Bulls

The proposed dog bite legislation was in response to the April 26 ruling of the Maryland Court of Appeals–the highest state appellate court–that both the owner of a pit bull dog (or pit bull mixed breed) and a landlord or other person with the right to control the presence of such dogs would be strictly liable for all injuries caused by such dogs whether or not there was any knowledge that a particular dog had a history of being vicious. Concluding that pit bulls are inherently dangerous animals, the court decision in Tracey v. Solesky changed the long-established common law (i.e. court-made law) liability standard for pit bull owners and property owners.

The  appeals court stated that the new strict liability standard applies to any new claims arising after the date of its decision.  Faced with greater potential liability for pit bull bites, some landlords reportedly began terminating leases of tenants who had pit bulls and some pit bull owners surrendered their dogs to animal shelters.  Condominium, homeowner association and coop boards began consideration of a ban on pit bulls and pit bull mixed breeds.

On May 25, the Court of Appeals was asked to reconsider its decision.  This created  uncertainty whether the ruling would remain effective as of April 26 if it was not modified on reconsideration.  In response to a legislator’s inquiry as to the status of the court ruling, a Maryland Assistant Attorney General issued an opinion letter on July 10 advising that, in her opinion, the new liability standard announced by the Court of Appeals was not yet in effect because the court ruling was not a final decision, so long as the request for reconsideration was pending.  But, that letter also indicated it was uncertain if the court would agree with her opinion and urged private parties to consult their own legal counsel for advice.

The court decision has been widely criticized for its conclusion that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, for applying a different standard of liability to one breed of dog, and for making landlords and others with the right to control the presence of pit bulls on their property strictly liable for injuries caused by such dogs.

Legislation Proposed to Overturn Court Ruling

In response to criticism of the appeals court ruling by animal rights advocates, landlords, the Community Associations Institute, and insurance companies, the Maryland General Assembly acted quickly during its August special session to consider legislation to overturn the court ruling while the request for court reconsideration was still pending.

On behalf of the Community Associations Institute, I attended the House Judiciary Committee hearing to explain the special problems of condos, HOAs and coops in banning, identifying and removing pit bulls and mixed pit bull breeds.  Unlike landlords which can readily ban pit bulls and evict tenants who violate pet restrictions, it is far more difficult, time-consuming and costly for a community association to ban certain breeds of dogs and have prohibited dogs removed from the community.  The final House version of the legislation included an amendment to make clear that condominiums, homeowner associations, and housing cooperatives are not subject to the strict liability standard.

With the support of animal rights groups, the Senate and House passed bills to generally extend the strict liability standard to owners and keepers of all dogs, with a few exceptions for veterinarians, police and military personnel, and other specified circumstances.

With the support of organizations representing landlords, community associations, insurance companies and animal rights advocates, both the Senate and House-passed versions overturn the strict liability standard for property owners and restores the common law liability standard for property owners which was in effect prior to the court ruling in Tracey v. Solesky Under the negligence standard, a landlord, condominium, homeowners association, housing cooperative or other person with control over the presence of a dog can still be liable for injuries caused by a dog where there is knowledge of the dog on the property and knowledge of its vicious propensities.

No Dog Bite Legislation Enacted

Although similar (but different) versions of dog bite legislation was introduced, considered,  and passed by the Maryland Senate and House in less than a week during the special legislative session, the differences were not resolved and no new law was approved by the General Assembly.  The entire topic of dog bite liability is expected to be revisited again during the regular January 2013 legislative session….when the legislative dogfight will continue.

 

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