In contrast to their rush to approve a gambling bill crafted in closed-door negotiations, Maryland lawmakers exercised commendable prudence in their handling of the other item on their to-do list for this week's special legislative session, a bill to modify the terms of a recent Court of Appeals decision on liability rules for pit bull attacks. Like the gambling bill, this one emerged from a post-regular legislative session study group, but unlike the gambling bill, it was amended in the General Assembly only amid extensive public debate and consultation with key stakeholders. And when legislators had concerns about whether the amendments sufficiently furthered the goals of encouraging responsible dog ownership and reducing the likelihood of dog attacks, they let the matter drop for now rather than enact a mistake.
The Court of Appeals ruling that began the discussion was the result of a terrible case. Then 10-year-old Domenic Solesky was viciously mauled by a neighbor's pit bull in 2007 while he was playing near his Towson home. The dog, who had escaped from a roofless pen for the second time that day, caused extensive injuries, including a severed femoral artery that Mr. Solesky was lucky to survive. He required extensive surgery and a year of physical therapy to recover. Saddled with huge medical bills, the Solesky family sued the dog's owner and the owner's landlord. The dog's owner quickly declared bankruptcy, so the case went forward only against the landlord.
The Court of Appeals ruling did two things. First, it overturned an old common law standard that a dog's owner had to know the animal was dangerous in order to be held liable for an attack — but only if the dog was a pit bull, which the court declared to be inherently dangerous. And second, it extended that liability to any landlord who rented to a pit bull owner.
The second part of the ruling likely had the most sweeping effect. It was unprecedented in any other state, and it could have made it virtually impossible for a pit bull owner to find rental housing. But it was the first part of the opinion that garnered all the attention, and for the wrong reasons. Pit bull owners decried the court's decision to single out that type of dog (pit bulls are not technically a breed) as something akin to racism. But the real problem with the ruling was not that it denigrated a certain type of dog but that it let all others off the hook. Pit bulls may be responsible for many injuries, but they are hardly the only type of dog that attacks. Why should a victim have less protection from the law if he is mauled by a Doberman?
The legislature appeared poised to make the most of a difficult situation by adopting a standard that all breeds should be held to the same strict liability standard that the court applied to pit bulls but that the old, limited liability standard should apply to landlords. Because his case is already in the courts, none of this would affect Domenic Solesky's ability to seek compensation, but it could affect anyone in his situation in the future. That is regrettable, but the most important thing is to reduce the odds that people will suffer injuries like he did, and the version of the bill that passed the Senate appeared likely to do that.
When the bill got to the House, however, delegates added an amendment specifying that the strict liability standard only applied to dogs who were running free. Given that most Maryland jurisdictions already require owners to leash their dogs in public, it's unclear how much that would actually add to existing protections in the law. Members of the Senate were unwilling to go along with that standard, at least without giving it due consideration and debate, so they let the bill die when the special session adjourned.
That is unfortunate but not catastrophic. The effect of the court's ruling is on hold for the moment while it is up for reconsideration, and now the legislature can take up the matter again during next year's regular General Assembly session, when they can give it the time, attention and thought that it deserves.