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Towson family has been at center of pit bull controversy

Justice SystemConservationMichael E. BuschInsuranceJohns Hopkins Hospital

The scars across 16-year-old Dominic Solesky's face are faint, but that doesn't stop people from asking where he got them.

The Towson High School junior and his family have told the story many times. Six years ago, Dominic was mauled by a pit bull named Clifford in the alley behind his red brick rowhouse in East Towson, an attack that resulted in trauma surgery at John Hopkins Hospital and a year of rehabilitation.

The family's case seeking restitution resulted in last year's Maryland Court of Appeals decision labeling pit bulls "inherently dangerous" and broadening the liability of landlords. Before that decision, a victim of a dog attack had to prove that the animal's owner, or the landlord, knew the pet had a vicious tendency based on past behavior. But the court ruled that landlords and owners of pit bulls can be held liable in attack cases even if there is no evidence that they knew the dog was dangerous.

In Annapolis on Monday, lawmakers failed to reach a compromise on a bill that would have undone the ruling — a failure animal advocates say will have repercussions for pet owners, landlords and insurance companies across the state.

"What happens next?" said Tami Santelli, Maryland director for the Humane Society of the United States. "People get kicked out of their houses. Pit bulls get sent to shelters and get euthanized. Businesses struggle with increased liability for another year."

Dominic's father, Tony Solesky, was also disappointed that lawmakers did not come to an agreement. He had hoped that more victims would be helped if the law did not single out pit bulls and if landlords shared responsibility. "I was hoping that they would come up with strict liability for all dogs," said Solesky, 52, a painting contractor who has taken leave from his job to devote time to advocacy for mauling victims.

As the session came to an end, legislators in the House and Senate appeared to reach a compromise that would have set liability for all dog owners if the victim were age 12 or younger. But the insurance industry raised concerns about aspects of the bill, noting that the measure had no exception for owner responsibility when children age 7 and older provoked a dog.

Tony Solesky said he made the decision to speak out about dog attacks when Dominic, then 10, was at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he underwent five hours of trauma surgery and spent 17 days in the aftermath of the attack.

"I turned to my wife, and I said, 'If he lives, we're going to have to do something about this,'" he said.

He threw himself into researching dog attacks. He has testified in Annapolis and appeared on television and radio shows. He posts news stories to his Facebook page whenever a person is attacked by dogs. The family traveled to Tucson last year for a walk for victims of dog maulings, and Tony wrote a free e-book called "Dangerous by Default."

The Soleskys have been outspoken on the issue, but they say many misunderstand their drive. For them, it's not about pit bulls, but about standing up to a system they say is stacked against victims to protect insurance companies.

"Our case epitomizes everything that was previously wrong with the law," Tony Solesky said. They were shocked, they say, when they discovered how hard it would be to collect restitution for Dominic's injuries, and never expected a five-year legal battle. Tony Solesky said the case was resolved, but would not comment on whether Dominic received any compensation for his injuries.

The Soleskys say some animal advocates have accused them of speaking out because they want money or because they hate pit bulls or all dogs. Tony Solesky said his sister has a pit bull, and the family owns a Brittany dog called Retsina — named for a Greek wine.

"The thing that really surprised me was how far the interest went away from the victims," said Dominic's mother, Irene, 51, who works as a mortgage underwriter. "They can't understand the fact that we almost lost a child."

Animal advocates say there has been fallout from the Court of Appeals ruling: apartment complexes asking residents to choose between their pets and homes, homeowners associations drawing up policies to ban pit bulls, and shelters seeing an increase in the breed.

"A lot of people have been forced to think about giving up their family pet," said Pauline Houliaras, a dog trainer and president of B-More Dog, a group that works to improve the image of pit bulls and to promote responsible ownership. "It mostly affects people who don't have a lot of resources or options. For people who have resources, they probably can just move if they want to."

Houliaras said people should keep in mind that maulings are rare.

"We have thousands of interactions with dogs on a daily basis, and nothing ever happens," she said. "When [an attack] happens, obviously it's a tragedy and we feel for the victim. And we also expect that if there's a dog owner involved, they need to be held responsible. But we need to keep it in perspective."

B-More Dog formed in 2008, in response to a Baltimore County legislative proposal to ban pit bulls — a measure sparked by the attack on Dominic. That legislation did not pass. The group pushed the General Assembly to address the pit bull issue this session, and Houliaras said advocates are "extremely disappointed" it didn't happen.

"They failed big-time," she said of state lawmakers. "It does not make communities any safer by keeping the ruling in place."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the bill died on the House floor Monday because it simply didn't have the votes. Busch said he was disappointed the General Assembly didn't resolve the issue.

"You could tell there was a lot of angst on the bill," said Busch, who expects lawmakers to take up the issue again next year.

Santelli of the Humane Society said last week that she believed lawmakers could have protected victims and created a fair legal standard for dog owners.

"Everybody can agree that we want safe communities," Santelli said. "The problem with singling out a particular type of dog is that it's been proven not to be effective in preventing dog bites."

The Solesky family's involvement has been important to the legislative process, she said.

"Having them tell their story has been really powerful and important," she said. "Dog bites are a public safety issue, which is what they emphasize. And I don't think anyone wants to forget that."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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Justice SystemConservationMichael E. BuschInsuranceJohns Hopkins Hospital
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