Fixing the Pit Bull Ruling

The Maryland Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in the case Tracey v. Solesky designating all dogs identified as pit bulls and pit bull mixes "inherently dangerous," and holding a dog's owner or anyone with the right to control the dog's presence on the property strictly liable for damages caused by a dog, purely by virtue of the dog's breed. This breed-specific rule is a massive shift in Maryland law, expected to bring about great expense to innocent parties and to keep good dogs in our already overpopulated shelters. Yet, rectifying this ruling is more complex than simply returning to the prior state of the law — the so-called "one bite rule."

The case involved a civil lawsuit where the family of a young Towson boy seriously injured by a loose dog sought compensation for medical expenses from the owner of the property where the incident occurred. The property owner was sued because the dog's owner had filed for bankruptcy, shielding him from judgment. The seriousness of this incident cannot be understated. The Solesky family has suffered greatly and unfairly. Thankfully, their son is recovering, but not everyone is so lucky.

Gov.Martin O'Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Buschand Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller wisely convened a legislative commission to study this ruling and, it is hoped, put forth legislation that properly protects individuals from unfounded liability while also holding appropriate parties accountable for the consequences of their dogs' actions. During its first meeting, the task force heard testimony from representatives of the many stakeholders in this issue: animal rights groups and caregivers, renters and landlords, animal control representatives, the insurance industry, and the Solesky family. The meeting made two things clear: that the task force is taking every appropriate consideration into careful account, and that its overarching goal will be no easy feat to achieve. It must manage risk and protect public health with an eye toward fairness and limiting unintended consequences.

Most if not all of us would agree that dog owners should be held responsible for the actions of their dogs. However, by imposing strict liability under the law, the Court of Appeals ruling is overly broad; it will result in harsh restrictions and expenses related to dogs where there is no indication of any risk posed to humans. The ruling no longer requires a victim of a pit bull attack to show that a defendant knew the dog had a history of dangerous behavior ("propensity for viciousness") to make a civil claim in court; the victim must show only that the owner or property owner knew a dog was at least part pit bull. Opponents of the ruling argue that it unfairly targets pit bulls, and that liability should be determined by a dog's behavior, not its breed.

Moreover, this ruling establishes far-reaching presumptive liability for dog owners and non-owners (even property owners where an incident happens to occur). This will create great expense and keep dogs with no prior history of misbehavior in already overcrowded shelters. Owners and property owners (landlords, dog boarders and groomers, veterinarians, etc.) will be forced to either bear the cost of purchasing insurance or simply ban pit bulls from their premises — the cheaper alternative. The ruling will also discourage adoption of these dogs because of liability concerns.

Finally, extending liability to pit bull mixes — without any clear definition — has created great uncertainty and could lead to abuse of the vague, overly broad, new legal standard. As such, the ruling could be unfairly applied to other misidentified dogs.

While many states have strict liability rules for dog owners, none of these states singles out a specific breed, and none extends this liability so far beyond owners as did the Court of Appeals in this case. While it's obvious that an owner should be responsible for the actions of his or her dog, this principle has never been extended to landlords, veterinarians, kennel owners, and other non-owners who simply failed to exclude a dog from certain premises. Moreover, laws dealing with dangerous dogs are typically established by the legislatures after proper fact finding and hearings, not by the courts.

I worked with the Humane Society and my colleagues in the General Assembly to craft a simple, straightforward emergency bill to rectify the ruling immediately by returning to a standard that limits responsibility for a dog's behavior to the dog owner. However, I am confident we can devise a more detailed, nuanced approach after the commission's deliberations. I will advise the commission, and Del. Eric Bromwell, who is also very passionate about this issue, is serving as a member of the commission representing Baltimore County. As an attorney, and given my relationship with the Humane Society, I remain fully engaged in this process and will continue to work with my colleagues to handle this dilemma with a thoughtful response.

Meanwhile, the real possibility of liability for potential incidents is causing landlords to force dog owners out of their properties, and preventing people from adopting dogs with pit bull bloodlines or appearances, further exacerbating overcrowding in shelters. Clarifying the scope of liability here is imperative, and waiting until the January legislative session could result in tragic outcomes — for people and dogs. The legislature is the appropriate body to study the issue carefully and strike the appropriate balance between public safety and fairness. We must get this right.