After two years of debating who’s liable when a dog attacks, Maryland’s lawmakers have finally reached a compromise that will overturn a high court ruling that declared all pit bulls are “inherently dangerous.”
The controversy started when the family of a 10-year-old who was attacked in 2007 sued the dog owner’s landlord in Tracey v. Solesky. The case led to the Maryland Court of Appeals declaring all pit bulls and pit bull mixes inherently dangerous.
Before the ruling all dogs had to bite once before being declared dangerous, and victims of an attack who wanted to file a lawsuit had to prove that the dog’s owner or landlord knew the dog had a history of aggression.
As a result of the ruling, anyone who wanted to sue only needed to prove that owners and landlords knew the dog was a pit bull and they would be financially responsible for injuries.
The ruling left pit bull advocates and owners concerned about the consequences for good reason. Owners worried about having to choose between getting evicted or giving up their dog, in addition to worrying about whether they would be able to find a place to live in the future. Rescues and shelters feared they would be flooded with dogs they wouldn’t be able to adopt out, which they were, while many others continued to raise concerns about the problems with trying to identify a breed based solely on looks.
Legislators attempted to fix the problem shortly after the ruling, but had been unable to agree on issues surrounding liability and reach a compromise until now.
This week they gave pit bull advocates a reason to celebrate by passing breed-neutral legislation that will undo the court’s ruling. The bills, SB 247 and HB 73, will hold all dog owners liable for their dogs, regardless of their breed, and will give them the chance to defend their dogs in court in the event that they do injure someone. They also remove strict liability from landlords and other third parties.
Owners could also avoid liability if bite victims were trespassing on their property, committing or attempting to commit a criminal offense against someone, or provoking the attack by teasing or tormenting the dog in question.
Those who support breed specific legislation, or breed discriminatory legislation, undoubtedly want to keep communities safe, but targeting specific breeds or dogs based on how they look, without considering their actual disposition, is not an effective approach when it comes to reducing bites.
Fortunately, instead of punishing innocent dogs and tearing families apart, lawmakers are continuing to acknowledge the fact that any dog can bite and are acting in the best interest of their communities by encouraging responsible dog ownership and holding all owners equally accountable.
Maryland’s move follows two other huge victories with one in South Dakota, which passed a law against breed discrimination at the end of March, and another in Utah this week with Governor Gary Hebert’s signing of a bill that will stop local governments from passing breed specific laws and overturn existing ones.
Missouri, Vermont and Washington are also considering similar legislation.
Because HB 73 was filed as an emergency bill in Maryland, it will go into effect immediately so all pit bulls need now is a signature from Governor Martin O’Malley, who is reportedly expected to sign it.
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