On pit bulls, the legislature can set matters right

However lawmakers feel about gambling, they can use this special session to establish fair, workable standards for dog bite liability

August 08, 2012|By Tami Santelli

As Maryland lawmakers reconvene in a special session in Annapolis on Thursday to grapple with whether to expand gambling, they have an opportunity to address another burning issue: a recent Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that puts dogs and families at risk. In the Tracey v. Solesky decision, the court held that owners and anyone with the power to control the presence of pit bull type dogs or pit bull mixes on the premises is strictly liable for any potential damages. The decision has created chaos for landlords and property owners who suddenly face the prospect of massive liability, and for tenants who face the choice of being evicted or giving up their beloved family pet. Animal shelters and rescue groups find themselves in a state of uncertainty as they brace for the impacts.

The ruling came down on April 26, 17 days after the General Assembly adjourned, and everyone concerned has been holding their breath, hoping not to have to wait until the regular legislative session in January to remedy real-life problems for both people and their pets. Fortunately, leaders in the legislature acted quickly to convene a joint legislative task force, and it appears legislation to address the unintended consequences of this ruling will make it on the agenda of this week's special legislative session.

Meanwhile, however, landlords have been sending warning notices to renters with pit bull type dogs, condo associations are considering changing their policies, local governments are scrambling to protect themselves from liability at city dog parks and other public spaces. And yet, the ruling is not actually in effect — and it may never take effect: a recent opinion from the Maryland Attorney General's office clarified that this ruling appears to be stayed while a motion for reconsideration is pending.

Despite what lawmakers think about attending a second special session or about expanding gaming in the state, they have an opportunity to address a situation that is critical for thousands of Maryland families. The most effective way to keep communities safe from dog bite incidents is to create policy holding all dog owners accountable for their pets' behavior regardless of breed. Research confirms and any agency responding to dog bite incidents will agree that dogs who are not spayed or neutered and who are improperly restrained (i.e. living on chains or in small pens) are more likely to behave aggressively than those who are sterilized and housed in safer and more natural conditions.

The Tracey v. Solesky case is really all about public safety and about dog owner responsibility. The circumstances leading to the case were horrific — a 10-year old boy in Towson was attacked and almost killed by a dog. Unfortunately, the court's approach — establishing a strict standard for one particular type of dog — has been proven not to be effective in protecting our communities. Jurisdictions that have tried to regulate a particular type of dog have not seen any improvement in public safety. This is because a dog's breed (or "type" in this case, since "pit bull" is not a recognized breed) is not a reliable indicator of a dog's behavior.

Even more problematic, this ruling set up a standard that is easier to meet for one group of dogs, in a sense valuing victims of bites caused by pit bull type dogs above victims of attacks by other dogs, when all dog owners should be held to the same standard of care. And it creates legal chaos, leading to costly and uncertain future litigation, as landlords, property owners, and city officials need to decide whether a dog is a "pit bull" or not.

This issue is not just about dogs; it has real impacts on people — people who own property, people who love their pets, people who need homeowners insurance, people who own small businesses that cater to animals, people who are harmed by dogs. This court decision was unprecedented in how far it extended strict liability. We all want safe communities and a fair, balanced and effective approach to dog bites and the ensuing liability. This week, the General Assembly has the opportunity to provide those things, and we urge them to take it.

Tami Santelli is Maryland senior state director for The Humane Society of the United States. Her email is tsantelli@humanesociety.org.

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