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Top court gets tough on pit bulls

Citing reports that pit bulls are more vicious, aggressive and accounted for one-third of the human fatalities from dog bites in a 12-year period, the state’s high court on Thursday imposed strict liability on owners of the breed and landlords who allow tenants to have them.

Instead of requiring injured plaintiffs to show the owner or landlord knew the dog was vicious, the plaintiff need only show the defendants knew or should have known the dog was a pit bull or pit-bull mix.

“Because of its aggressive and vicious nature and its capability to inflict serious and sometimes fatal injuries, pit bulls and cross-bred pit bulls are inherently dangerous,” retired Court of Appeals Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote for the 4-3 majority.

Writing for the dissenters, though, Judge Clayton Greene Jr. said the dangerousness of pit bulls was “clearly in dispute.”

“Succumbing to the allure of bad facts leads inevitably to the development of bad law,” Greene wrote.

The case stems from the mauling of a 10-year-old Baltimore boy named Dominic Solesky, who suffered life-threatening injuries when a pit bull named Clifford jumped the fence and attacked him in an alley. Clifford’s owner, Thomas O’Halloran, pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and filed for bankruptcy protection.

Thursday’s decision revives the family’s lawsuit against Dorothy M. Tracey, who rented the property to O’Halloran.

At their first trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court, the judge refused to let the case against Tracey go to the jury because there was insufficient evidence that she knew the dog was dangerous.

That ruling was correct under the law as it existed prior to Thursday, Cathell noted. However, since liability for a dog attacks is a question of common law, rather than statute in Maryland, it was up to the court to change it, the majority said.

Kevin A. Dunne, a principal at Ober|Kaler in Baltimore, who represents the Soleskys, said his clients had been notified of the decision but had not had yet discussed their next steps.

“They will be very pleased with the Court of Appeals’ opinion, so hopefully other adults and children won’t be victimized by pit bulls,” Dunne said.

The decision left landlords and animal-rights advocates reeling.

Jen Swanson, executive director of the Baltimore Humane Society, agreed with the dissent that pit bulls and mixes are no more prone to attacks than other breeds.

Swanson said that at the Reisterstown shelter, pit bulls and pit bull mixes account for about 70 percent of the adoptable dogs. She said the ruling was bound to make it even more difficult to find homes for the dogs.

“This preconception about pit bulls is a battle that I’ve been fighting for 15 years now, and there have been good days and bad ones,” she said. “This is a really bad day.”

Katherine Kelly Howard, general counsel for Regional Management Inc., a Baltimore-based property management company, said that the ruling was bound to have a big impact on landlords and rental companies.

“I think that it is certainly a game changer,” Howard said. “This goes far beyond what we thought would happen — to be breed-specific and impose strict liability on the owner is just unbelievable.”

Regional Management has excluded pit bulls and pit bull mixes since 1998, when the Court of Appeals decided another pit bull case, Matthews v. Amberwood case.

In Matthews, the court stopped short of imposing strict liability but “clearly forecasted the direction the Court might take in the proper case,” Cathell wrote Thursday. “This is that case.”

Howard said pit-bull bans are bound to become more widespread in the wake of Thursday’s decision.

“It could pit the tenant against the landlord over whether or not they can keep their family pet,” Howard said. “And that’s a shame.”

In the dissent’s view, though, there have little option.

“Under the new rule announced today…,” Greene wrote, “the only corrective action an owner, keeper, or landlord could possibly take to avoid liability for the harm caused to another by a pit bull or mixed-breed pit bull is not to possess or allow possession of this specific breed of dog on the premises.”

The case is Tracey v. Solesky, RecordFax #12-0426-20 (42 pages).

 

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Tracey v. Solesky, et al. CA No.53 Sept. Term 2011. Reported. Opinion by Judge Dale R. Cathell. Dissent by Judge Clayton Greene Jr. Argued Jan. 9, 2012. Filed April 26, 2012.

Issue:

Is the harboring of pit bulls by tenants an inherently dangerous activity for which landlords may be held strictly liable?

Holding:

Yes; Because of its aggressive and vicious nature and its capability to inflict serious and sometimes fatal injuries pit bulls and cross-bred pit bulls are inherently dangerous.

Counsel:

Richard E. Schimel and Clifford A. Robinson for petitioners; Kevin A. Dunne for cross-petitioners.

RecordFax # 12-0426-20, 42 pages.

 


One comment

  1. irk@kramerslaw.com

    This will be a very controversial decision, particularly as the ownership of these animals has not been banned by the General Assembly. The Court has essentially outlawed a particular breed, acting as a super-legislature in this instance. See http://www.kramerslaw.com/blog/strict-liability-for-pit-bull-attacks.