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Senate OKs dogs bill

ANNAPOLIS — The fight over establishing liability for injuries and deaths related to dog bites moved one step closer to the House of Delegates Wednesday after the state Senate voted to amend a compromise proposal.

Mike Miller

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., left, with Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, immediately after Wednesday’s debate. It was Frosh who proposed the original compromise bill that was amended during the floor session. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Preliminary approval of Senate Bill 247 came after more than 90 minutes of intense debate that ended with legislators moving to reconsider, and ultimately approve, an amendment that was previously rejected.

“The Senate has moved considerably and tried to meet the House in the middle,” said Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery. “Now it’s their turn to meet us in the middle.”

Raskin initially voted against an amendment proposed by Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, which imposed a higher standard of liability for attacks by a dog that is roaming or “running at large.” But after the vote, Raskin said he had second thoughts and invoked a procedural move to reconsider that amendment.

Raskin and two other senators changed their votes and the amendment passed 25-22.

Under the revised measure, the owner of a roaming dog is liable for attacks, subject to a limited set of exceptions. The exceptions include victims who were trespassing or committing other criminal acts, or who teased, tormented, abused or otherwise provoked the animal.

The original compromise bill, as proposed by Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, establishes that 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 legislation comes in response to a 2012 Court of Appeals ruling in which the court said that pit bulls were inherently dangerous and that owners of those dogs — and landlords who rent to owners of pit bulls — are strictly liable.

Frosh fought hard to hold together enough votes to preserve his bill in an unaltered form, saying the House would not consider legislation that included any strict liability standard.

“We’ve had two train wrecks on this subject,” Frosh said, speaking of previous efforts to resolve the Court of Appeals decision. Zirkin, he said “is inviting you to a third one.”

Efforts to resolve the issue last year fell apart amid accusations from Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, a vocal opponent of strict liability, that Frosh went back on a deal. The resulting conference committee compromise, which contained a liability with limited defenses, was supported in the Senate. That bill failed in the House.

Zirkin pleaded with the Senate to adopt his amendment that would have made Frosh’s bill identical to the conference committee agreement last year. Even Frosh said he would prefer the bill from last year, but acknowledged his belief that it would not pass muster in the House.

But members of his own party, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., were deeply divided on the issue.

“We should not have a shotgun held to our heads,” said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore. “In the Senate we’re going to do it and do it right. If the House does the wrong thing, that’s on them.”

Miller voted with Zirkin on his roaming-dog amendment, but that measure failed 23-24.

In a later interview, Simmons, D-Montgomery, praised Frosh for his work on the bill.

“We’ll take a good hard look at what the Senate did,” he said. Frosh, he said, “produced a compromise bill that was largely intact. I know he fought hard for it.

“I regret he could not fight off (the roaming dog amendment) but Senator Miller imposed that by fiat,” Simmons said.

Simmons said he could live with the final version of the Senate bill but said it will open the door to delegates who will want to add their own amendments. He hinted that House amendments could again derail efforts to pass a bill.

“I won’t speak to what will happen in the end,” said Simmons.