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House passes bill overturning pit bull ruling

ANNAPOLIS — The House of Delegates on Thursday passed legislation that would hold dog owners presumptively liable in litigation for injuries caused by their pets.

The owners could rebut the presumption by showing they had no reason to know or suspect their dog had “vicious or dangerous propensities.”

With the House’s 133-0 vote, attention shifts to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which is expected to vote within the next few weeks on the House-passed measure.

The legislation, House Bill 78, seeks to overturn the Maryland high court’s controversial Tracey v. Solesky ruling last April that pit bull owners and landlords could be held strictly liable for injuries the dogs cause.

Dog owners and landlords lobbied heavily for a legislative fix, and the controversy only grew last summer when Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, proposed strict liability for all dog owners.

Frosh, D-Montgomery, received broad support only for his proposal – included in the pending legislation – that landlords should not be held strictly liable for their tenants’ dogs.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery and the bill’s chief sponsor, said he drafted the measure as a “compromise” that provides protection for both the owner and the plaintiff alleging injury. Frosh is the sponsor of the Senate version, Senate Bill 160.

Under the measure, plaintiffs retain the burden of persuasion, under which they must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant knew or should have know the dog’s dangerous propensity.

The legislation holds landlords liable only if they knew or should have known of the violent propensity of a dog on their property. But, unlike with dog owners, the landlords would not be presumed liable at the outset of the litigation.