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House waters down Senate’s pit bulls bill

ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates appeared ready Tuesday to pass a substantially watered-down Senate bill that would undo a Court of Appeals ruling that called pit bulls “inherently dangerous.”

SB 2 received preliminary approval from the chamber early in the evening, but a possible final vote was delayed by the prolonged debate on legislation that would expand Maryland’s casino gambling program.

The bill would apply strict liability to the owner of any dog, if that dog bites someone while running “at large.” The bill specifically absolves state governments, animal shelters, kennels, dog walkers and pet shops from responsibility.

The bill passed in the Senate in a much different form Friday. The Senate bill, which has Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, as its lead sponsor, originally made all dog owners strictly liable if their dog bit someone.

Some exceptions to that strict liability — making owners not responsible if someone is bit while criminally trespassing, for example — were part of the original bill. But the House version drastically narrowed Frosh’s legislation.

“Your dog doesn’t get one free bite,” Frosh said last week, explaining his bill. But under the House amendments, dogs not running “at large” do get one free bite.

It was unclear Tuesday whether the Senate would accept the bill as amended.

While there was no debate on the bill’s merits on the House floor, the Republican leader of the House of Delegates did question the process by which the bill found its way into the chamber.

Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s, said in the House’s session that Judiciary Committee never voted on a House bill that was initially presented to the full body. O’Donnell said that only Frosh’s bill — which was amended to look identically like the House bill — was voted on.

After some debate, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, suggested that House panel offer the Senate bill instead of the House bill.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, insisted that the committee voted on both bills — and both were approved unanimously.

In the case of Tracey v. Solesky, the Court of Appeals ruled that because of the dangerous nature of pit bulls, owners of such a dog and the landlords that allow them to have such a dog would be made strictly liable for damages in court, rather than requiring the plaintiff to prove the owner or landlord was negligent.