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In ‘dog’ fight, Senate president is backing Frosh

ANNAPOLIS — Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. on Wednesday came to the defense of Sen. Brian E. Frosh against a delegate’s accusation that Frosh reneged on the terms of their deal on pet-owner liability for a dog attack.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons “doesn’t understand how the Senate works,” Miller said from the Senate rostrum while the Senate was in session.

“There are no dictators here,” added Miller, D-Prince George’s and Calvert, who did not mention Simmons by name. “There are no czars here.”

Miller’s defense followed published statements from Simmons saying that Frosh, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, had “welshed on the agreement” when his panel voted 7-4 last week on an amendment that makes it harder for dog owners to avoid liability, which the delegate said essentially guts the accord he had with Frosh.

While Frosh voted against the amendment, he did not work hard enough to defeat it, Simmons said Monday.

Senate committee chairmen “let the policy move forward” and do not dictate how members should vote, Miller said. The Senate is where “democracy takes place,” he added.

Miller’s comments in support of Frosh — whom the president called “honest” and “thoughtful” — drew a standing ovation from the senators.

Simmons, after being told of Miller’s comments, said he “never criticized” the Senate or the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“Given Senator Miller’s uncomfortable and problematic relationship with truth-telling, I am not surprised that he would find someone who is trying to tell the truth to be extreme,” said Simmons, D-Montgomery.

Frosh, D-Montgomery, appreciated Miller’s gesture.

“It was very nice of him,” Frosh said after the Senate session.

Higher standard of proof

Both Senate Bill 160 and House Bill 78 seek to overturn last April’s controversial ruling by the Court of Appeals in Tracey v. Solesky, which found pit bulls inherently dangerous and imposed strict liability on their owners and the owners’ landlords for injuries those dogs cause.

For all other breeds, the common-law or “one free bite” rule would apply.

After the ruling, the General Assembly tried to countermand the measure in two special sessions last year, but failed to reach agreement either time.

In January, Frosh and Simmons announced they had reached a compromise measure that was breed-neutral and victim-friendly.

As to landlords, the common-law rule would be restored. Dog owners, however, would be presumed liable 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.”

As introduced and passed 133-0 by the House last month, dog owners could rebut the presumption by a “preponderance of the evidence” standard.

In Frosh’s committee, though, senators amended the bill to impose a higher standard. Dog owners could still rebut the presumption of liability; however, they could only do so with “clear and convincing” evidence that they had no reason to know or suspect.

Simmons called the amendment a deal-breaker, saying the higher evidentiary burden is “the functional equivalent” of strict liability.

Frosh “was simply going through the motions,” Simmons said Monday.

Frosh responded that he argued against the amendment, but “I have 11 people on my committee. They have their opinions, and they’re entitled to their opinions.”

The Senate could vote as early as Thursday on the committee’s version of the legislation. If it passes, the bills will go to a conference committee to see if the differences can be worked out.

If the legislation fails to pass, the breed-specific ruling by the Court of Appeals will remain in effect.