Pit bull fight may stretch into dog days of summer

Lawyers ask Maryland Court of Appeals to reconsider its controversial ruling on pit bulls

May 30, 2012|Dan Rodricks

The public rumble over pit bulls, provoked by the Maryland Court of Appeals' ruling in April that the breed is "inherently dangerous," could spill into the legislature should the General Assembly decide to take up the matter in a special session this summer. In the meantime, the state's highest court has been asked to reconsider its decision, or to at least delay it until the legislature gets a chance to act.

In a motion filed last week, attorneys from the high-powered Venable law firm claim the court's decision against their client — a Towson landlord whose tenant owned a pit bull that mauled a 10-year-old boy in 2007 — was based on "unsound science" and "misperceptions" about the breed. Most significantly, the motion says, the court violated the Maryland Constitution by making law that should be left to the legislature.

"This action is wholly unprecedented in Maryland or anywhere else in the country, and the constitutional separation-of-power ramifications have yet to be adequately explored," the motion said.

Before Maryland's highest court declared pit bulls inherently dangerous in late April, a victim seeking damages from an insurance company or other party had to prove that a dog's owner knew the animal had a history of being dangerous. "It is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous," the court ruled, setting off a public controversy and demands by pet advocates that the General Assembly reverse the court's ruling during a special session this summer.

"Untold numbers of dog owners in Maryland are now being told to abandon their pets or leave their homes," asserts the motion. "They have been given no hearing, no notice, no opportunity to participate in a democratic forum ... The separation of powers exists for a reason."

The motion notes that at least four bills have been filed that, if passed, "would effectively supersede" the court's ruling. A special summer session of the General Assembly, which is expected to be consumed with gambling issues, has been tentatively set for July 9. Legislative leaders have said they're willing to take up pit bulls if the special session is called.

Meanwhile, speaking of dogs ...

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With 26 incidents each reported in the 2011 federal fiscal year, Baltimore and San Francisco tied for 14th place in theU.S. Postal Service's annual rankings of the top 25 communities for dog attacks on letter carriers. Six of the worst communities were in California and Texas. Los Angeles topped the list with 83 attacks. Two Ohio cities, Cleveland (44 bites) and Dayton (25), ranked fourth and 15th respectively. (A new state law, defining a "vicious" dog and eliminating pit bulls from that statutory definition, took effect in Ohio last week.)

Across the country, 5,577 letter carriers were bitten by dogs in more than 1,400 communities last year, costing the Postal Service nearly $1.2 million in medical expenses. As part of its annual campaign to bring public attention to dog attacks, the Postal Service pulls information from a variety of sources and reports that:

•about 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States, and half of the victims are children;

•More than 29,000 reconstructive procedures were performed by plastic surgeons in 2011 as a result of injuries caused by dog bites;

•dog attacks account for more than a third of all homeowner insurance liability claims.

Insurance companies, in particular, have a lot at stake in all this, thus the keen interest and presence of Venable in the Maryland pit bull matter.

Meanwhile, regarding more bucolic matters ...

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During a recent hike along a river in Garrett County, I paused on the trail and, for about two minutes, I could hear the distant sounds of two worlds simultaneously — the growl of a motorcycle on Interstate 68 and what I'm certain was the clip-clop of an Amish farmer's buggy horse on the road near the woods behind me. The motorcycle was several miles away, out on the highway, but still clear to the ear. The buggy, which I earlier had seen in motion on the road, wasn't visible through the woods at the moment, but its sound was unmistakable. I listened until I could no longer hear either vehicle, then turned my attention to a red-wing blackbird, who gave me the ole "tsk, tsk, tsk" followed by his incessant "Seeya!" screech. Whatever happened to peace and quiet?

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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