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Attorney General: Pit bull law on hold

An opinion from the Office of the Maryland Attorney General could ease the mind of pit bull owners and their landlords, but an Upper Shore lawmaker cautioned that the opinion is not binding.

The opinion, signed by Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe, states that the Court of Appeals’ recent ruling making owners and their landlords strictly liable if a pit bull attacks another person is not in effect while the court reviews a motion for reconsideration.

But Republican Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., also a lawyer in Elkton, said Wednesday the opinion only offered a guess on how a court would rule, and that other lawyers could argue that the pit bull liability ruling is in effect.

“This is not a definitive answer to that question, the court has not said ‘we stay this decision,’” Smigiel said. “It’s the interpretation of the attorney general.”

Under the court ruling, which calls pit bulls an inherently dangerous animal, victims of attacks by that breed need only prove that owners or landlords knew the dog was a pit bull in order to pursue damages.

A legislative task force was formed to study the decision. The task force might draft legislation that would apply strict liability on all dog owners, regardless of that dog’s breed, but with a laundry list of exceptions. For example, if a dog was being provoked before it attacked, owners would not be liable.

The task force has slowed its work because its members do not expect a special legislative session to be called by Gov. Martin O’Malley this summer.

Animal rights activists say they have feared the court’s ruling would lead to mass euthanasia of the dogs, and pit bull owners have feared eviction by their landlords.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur, D-Montgomery, said the attorney general’s opinion should help allay some of those fears, but said a permanent legislative remedy needed to be passed by the General Assembly.

Both Mizeur and Smigiel said overriding the ruling was a better reason to call for a special session than holding a session to expand the state’s gambling program.

“Ideally, we will be able to come together before January in order to do this,” Mizeur said. “Personally, I think an issue like this is more important than gaming expansion.”