Pit bull compromise fails, trial lawyers win

Marta Mossburg says legislators who helped kill dog bite bill stand to benefit from its demise

April 09, 2013|Marta H. Mossburg

People say dogs look like their owners. That may not be true, but they certainly look and act like we want them to, as breeds are a construct of generations of culling for certain aesthetic and other traits, including hunting ability, intelligence and, in some cases, viciousness.

Which brings us to pit bulls, considered "inherently dangerous" under Maryland law since a 2012 Court of Appeals ruling.

Some of the dogs that fall into that general description are ferocious, because humans designed them to be. But so are a lot of other dogs that, for whatever nature or nurture reason, like to bite people — which is why many urged lawmakers to overturn the decision.

Common sense says owners should be responsible for their dogs, no matter the breed. But translating common sense into law is not easy. For the second time, state lawmakers failed to pass a law mitigating the situation when the General Assembly session ended Monday night. This means both pit bull owners and their landlords will still be held liable for bites, and that those who own pit bulls (many of them rescued dogs) will have a hard time finding a place to live, all because Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, reneged on a compromise he reached with Del. Luiz Simmons, another Democrat from Montgomery, in a way that could fatten the wallets of fellow plaintiff and trial lawyers.

The compromise legislation that both Senator Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, and Delegate Simmons, a member of the Judiciary Committee, originally agreed to would have allowed dog owners to show a "preponderance of the evidence" that their dog was not inclined to bite as a defense in court. But the Senate legislation Mr. Frosh sponsored called for "clear and convincing" proof — a stricter legal standard that would make it easier for victims to sue and win in court or receive larger settlements. The conference committee version that attempted to reconcile these two versions failed to pass the House on Monday.

Why did Mr. Frosh and his committee derail the process?

This might shed some light on the subject. Mr. Frosh is a partner at Karp, Frosh, Wigodsky & Norwind, a personal injury and civil litigation firm, who announced in October that he is considering a run for attorney general. He also happens to be headlining the annual dinner on April 24 of the influential Maryland Association for Justice — the advocacy and lobbying group for plaintiff and trial attorneys in the state.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin is a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and is an attorney whose website looks like "Dog Bites 'R' Us." He also sat on the conference committee that tried to reconcile the House and Senate bills. The first image on his website is of a white dog with teeth bared. He advises victims of dog bites that, "An experienced dog bite attorney will be able to help you get the best possible results. Call the Law Office of Bobby Zirkin at 410-356-4455 immediately and come in for your free consultation on this important matter." He is also a referral attorney for dog bite cases at Saiontz & Kirk, a personal injury law firm.

Mr. Zirkin said he has only been involved with three dog bite cases "in his entire career" and that the compromise legislation "is bad for trial attorneys" because the only issue to decide under the legislation is damages.

But you don't advertise for what you don't want. And victims frequently need lawyers to reach a settlement.

He also said the Senate legislation would not hurt anyone, pointing to the fact that 36 states and Washington, D.C. have some form of "strict liability" statute on the books and that people still own dogs and can get insurance in those states.

But he is wrong that the legislation would have no impact. Insurance companies are increasingly excluding certain breeds from homeowner and rental policies because of higher-priced claims made possible by strict liability laws. According to the Insurance Information Institute, from 2003 to 2011, the cost of an average claim increased 53 percent, to over $29,000. Given that dog bites made up over one third of all homeowner liability claims paid in 2011 and cost $479 million, there is a lot at stake for dog owners who want affordable insurance.

Pointing out these issues, as Mr. Simmons did, makes one a pariah. When he called out Mr. Frosh for rejecting the compromise the two had reached — the one reflected in the House version — he was chastised publicly by Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

So nothing is resolved, again. And meanwhile, few seem willing to discuss why perpetuating certain man-made breeds makes any sense.

Marta H. Mossburg is a Baltimore-area writer whose work appears regularly in The Sun. Her email is marta@martamossburg.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mmossburg.

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