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House panel OKs bill to overturn pit bull ruling

ANNAPOLIS — A House of Delegates committee has unanimously approved a bill that would overturn a controversial ruling by Maryland’s high court that last year singled out pit bulls as “inherently dangerous.”

The Court of Appeals decided in April that pit bull owners ought to know their dog is a dangerous animal by virtue of its breed, making those owners, their landlords and potentially other business owners, strictly liable for damages if a pit bull attacks someone.

The ruling was almost universally condemned by members of the General Assembly, who immediately began making plans to pass legislation that would overturn the court.

In an August special session in which the legislature was focused on expanding gambling, an attempt to overturn the ruling failed when the House and Senate could not decide how to change the law.

But compromise legislation emerged early this year between a pair of Montgomery County Democrats: Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, and Del. Luis R.S. Simmons, a member of the Judiciary Committee.

The bill would create a presumption that a person who owns a dog of any breed knows that animal is dangerous, while also allowing a dog owner to argue that presumption in court. Simmons said the bill gives dog owners a chance to defend themselves while keeping the burden of proof off of the victim.

“All a dog bite victim would have to prove is a dog, a bite, and then sit down,” Simmons said.

The bill would also remove business owners from the equation and would force the victim of a dog attack to prove that a landlord should have known the dog was dangerous. Animal rights advocates and many lawmakers had said it was unfair to single out pit bulls from other breeds.

“There are many pit bulls that are sweet and loveable,” Simmons said.

In a 22-0 Judiciary Committee vote, the bill was approved with one technical amendment, clarifying that landlords would not automatically be held liable if a dog attacked someone on their property. The full House could approve the legislation, HB 78, as early as next week.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held a hearing on SB 160, an identical bill, on Feb. 5, but Frosh said the panel wouldn’t vote on that bill until the House passed its version. In August, the Senate passed legislation that was later amended by the House in such a way that Frosh found unacceptable, effectively killing the legislation.

Frosh’s original bill in August made all dog owners strictly liable if their dog bit someone, with some exceptions. But the House of Delegates’ version drastically narrowed Frosh’s legislation, making owners liable only if a dog was running “at large.” Both bills removed landlords’ liability.

The House immediately adjourned after passing the amended bill, making it impossible for the two chambers to confer. Frosh didn’t feel the bill went far enough, so allowed the legislation to die when the Senate adjourned later.

This time, the chairman is letting the House go first.

“We’ll wait for it to trot across,” Frosh said.

Assuming no unexpected amendments are tacked on during debate by the full House, the emergency measure is all but assured passage in the Senate, which is likely to follow Frosh’s lead. Upon passage, the legislation would immediately overturn the court decision, which has put pressure on animal shelters and has caused some to be threatened with eviction should they not give up their dogs.