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General Assembly fails to pass dog-liability bill

ANNAPOLIS — The General Assembly failed to pass a breed-neutral law on liability for dog attacks, leaving in place the Court of Appeals’ April 2012 ruling that imposed strict liability on pit bull owners and the owners’ landlords.

Benjamin Kramer and Kathleen Dumais

Dels. Benjamin Kramer, left and Kathleen Dumais, both Montgomery County Democrats, get into a heated exchange about the dog-liability bill on the House floor Monday night. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

The Senate had voted 47-0 Monday to approve a compromise measure that would impose near-strict liability on dog owners whose pets injure a child under the age of 13.

The House of Delegates was expected to vote on the measure before the close of the General Assembly’s session at midnight but the vote never came amid staunch opposition to a near strict liability provision.

Del. Benjamin F. Kramer, D-Montgomery, led the opposition on the House Floor, calling the bill unfair to dog owners.

“If little Fifi takes a nip on the 12-year-old neighbor, that’s going to be strict liability” for the owner, Kramer said. “The litigation floodgates [would] have been thrown wide open.”

The legislation had emerged Monday from a conference committee of three Senators and three delegates who met to resolve differences between the two bills the chambers passed earlier this session, specifically on the standard of proof required to rebut the presumption of liability.

The House had passed a bill that would have allowed owners to rebut the presumption with the “more likely than not” standard regardless of the age of the victim.

The Senate’s version, however, required owners to rebut the presumption by “clear and convincing evidence” — a higher standard that House members denounced as unfair to owners and the functional equivalent of strict liability.

The differences in the bills led Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons to accuse Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings, Committee, of going back on the deal reached early in the session.

Simmons said Frosh, his fellow Montgomery County Democrat, reneged on their deal to support the measure — which the House passed 133-0 in February — which was designed to prevent all dog owners from being held strictly liable while making it easier for dog-bite victims to win in court.

“We had an agreement,” Simmons said after Frosh’s committee amended the bill in early March. “He welched on the agreement.”

Under Monday’s compromise legislation, owners could have avoided liability only by showing that the child had trespassed on the owner’s property or had engaged in “criminal delinquency,” such as by provoking the dog.

For people 13 and older, the legislation would have create a rebuttable presumption that the owner is liable for the injury. Owners could rebut the presumption by showing they had no reason to suspect the dog had a vicious propensity.

The owners would have to make that showing by a preponderance of evidence, also known as a “more likely than not” standard.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin said after the Senate vote that the compromise measure provided greater legal protection for children under age 13 because the youngsters “have neither the judgment to avoid the most vicious dogs nor the ability to get away.”

Raskin, D-Montgomery, chaired the three-member Senate delegation to the conference committee.

The legislation, Senate Bill 160 and House Bill 78, sought to overturn the Maryland Court of Appeals’ controversial Tracey v. Solesky decision from April 2012. In that decision, the court found that pit bull dogs were inherently dangerous and, therefore, the owners and the owners’ landlords could be held strictly liable for injuries the dogs cause.

The new legislation would have applied to all dog owners and removed the strict liability standard for landlords.