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General Assembly to wrestle with pit bulls

Legislators will return to Annapolis this week hoping the third time is the charm for passage of a breed-neutral law on dog-attack liability.

State Senator Bobby Zirkin, speaking at a demonstration on Lawyers Mall in Annapolis about the Pit Bull Legislation. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record).

Legislation pre-filed for the session that begins Wednesday represents the latest attempt by legislators to resolve the controversy that arose from a 2012 Court of Appeals decision of a case in which a Towson boy was mauled by a pit bull.

“We’ve reached a compromise,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Frosh said he and Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, will sponsor identical bills they hope will resolve the controversy surrounding the nearly 2-year-old decision by the state’s highest court.

A hearing on Simmons’ bill, which he prefiled, is scheduled for Jan. 23 in the House Judiciary Committee. Frosh is expected to introduce his bill soon after the session begins on Jan. 8.

But the attorney who represented the family of the boy who was injured, Dominic Solesky, said the compromise undermines the Court of Appeals decision and returns the state to the common law standard.

“What I want is a level playing field,” said Kevin A. Dunne an attorney in the firm of Ober | Kaler P.C. “The victims are the ones who are getting screwed here and they should be the first to be protected. They’re the ones getting no protection here.”

In the bill filed by Simmons, an injury or death caused by a dog bite creates a rebuttable presumption that the owner knew or should have known that the dog had dangerous or vicious propensities. The bill would prevent judges from ruling that the presumption had been rebutted before a jury could return its verdict.

Victims would have to prove that landlords or other property owners knew or had reason to know that the dog was dangerous.

The 2013 session ended without a compromise that would have dealt with the 2012 case, Tracey vs. Solesky.

Prior to the 2012 decision, Maryland operated under a common law standard that effectively gave the dog “one free bite,” according to Dunne.

“I want a reasonable standard,” said Dunne, who represented the Solesky family. “If you have an animal¬ — any animal; a dog, a cat, a farm animal or exotic animal — and that animal injures someone then you are responsible,”

Dominic Solesky was 10 years old in 2007 when he was mauled by a pit bull while playing with friends in an alley in Towson. The dog, named Clifford, escaped from a yard and attacked him, tearing away a large portion of one of his thighs and severing his femoral artery.

The injury nearly killed the child and ultimately required a year of physical therapy.

The Solesky family sued the owners and later the dog owners’ landlord.

In that 2012 case, the Court of Appeals ruled that pit bulls was an inherently dangerous breed of dog and that landlords could be held liable for injuries or deaths caused by those dogs. The court later amended its decision to apply only to purebred pit bulls.

Animal rights advocates and others railed against the breed-specific ruling. Some said the ruling, if allowed to stand, would force owners to make a choice between their homes and their family pets, and would cause ripples in the insurance industry resulting in increased costs or refusals to write policies.

The legislature attempted but failed to deal with the issue during a special session in 2012.

Last year, Frosh and Simmons introduced competing bills that set different standards of liability. Simmons said he later believed he had reached a compromise with the committee chairman, but legislation that emerged from a conference committee and passed overwhelmingly by the Senate failed to pass the House.

The conference committee bill left in place a higher standard that dog owners had to meet to rebut the presumption of clear and convincing evidence. Opponents of that language said it effectively created a strict liability standard in Maryland for all dog breeds.

Simmons was angered by the failed effort and accused Frosh of backing out of the compromise.

“He welched on the agreement,” Simmons said of Frosh.

Tami Santelli, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said the bill is a modified version of the bill that passed the Senate last year. The organization supported that bill and Santelli said it supports the Frosh-Simmons proposal this year.

“It’s a fair compromise,” Santelli said.

Santelli said she understands Dunne’s concerns but that the latest effort protects victims and the rights of dog owners.

“It does go back to the common law standard, but it also raises the bar, and some would say significantly, for the dog owner, regardless of the breed of the dog,” Santelli said.


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