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Singling out pit bulls is unfair [Commentary]

Lawmakers arrive back in Annapolis this week to a major piece of unfinished business: passing a dog bite liability bill to address the unintended consequences of the Maryland Court of Appeals' ruling in which pit bull-type dogs were deemed inherently dangerous. The Maryland General Assembly, which last year failed to pass compromise legislation to address the issue, will have another chance to bring certainty and protection to dog bite victims and dog owners.

The court's unprecedented decision holds owners of pit bull type dogs, landlords and anyone else with the right to control the dog's presence on their property strictly liable for incidents involving the dog. This has resulted in paralyzing uncertainty for hundreds of thousands of dog owners in the state (nearly one-third of Maryland households include at least one dog) and for Maryland's animal shelters, property owners, insurance companies and small businesses. Victims of dog bites also face a strange paradigm in which the treatment they receive from the courts depends on the type of dog that inflicted their injury. Strict liability based on a dog's appearance is an untenable, unfair and ineffective way to create safe communities and compensate people who are injured by dogs.

Because of the ruling, Maryland is the only state in the country with a policy singling out a particular type of dog, when 16 other states have explicitly banned breed specific laws and ordinances. Nationally recognized sources like the Centers for Disease Control and the American Veterinary Medical Association have repeatedly found that no breed of dog is more dangerous than another. The December 2013 issue of The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) included the most comprehensive study of dog bite related fatalities since this subject was first studied in the 1970s. Researchers identified multiple preventable factors that contribute to serious dog bites, including whether the dog was kept as a "family" dog inside the home or a "resident" dog, the victim's relationship with the dog, and whether the dog was spayed or neutered, among others. They confirmed that a multifaceted approach to dog bite prevention is most effective. Researchers also found that the breed of dog could not be reliably identified in more than 80 percent of the cases.

The case that led to the court's ruling, Tracey v. Solesky, was the result of a horrific attack, and we should do everything possible to prevent similar incidents and make sure victims are compensated for their injuries. All of the stakeholders in this discussion want safe communities. As research has shown, while singling out a particular type of dog may give an illusion of protection, it is simply an ineffective strategy. Maryland residents deserve a policy that goes beyond demonizing pit bulls and puts in place something that actually works.

Sen. Brian Frosh and Del. Luiz Simmons, both Democrats, plan to reintroduce compromise legislation that would increase protections for all victims of dog bites — regardless of the type of dog involved. Their bill would also maintain the dog owner's ability to provide evidence about the dog's prior behavior to the courts. This is a fair compromise that has been painstakingly hammered out by leaders in the General Assembly with input from the major stakeholders. This is a clear attempt to strike a balance between the common law, which requires some knowledge that the dog is potentially dangerous before liability attaches, and strict liability.

The Court of Appeals passed the buck to the General Assembly, pointing out several times in its opinion that lawmakers had not spoken on this issue. Since the ruling last year, the General Assembly has managed to expand gaming in the state, enact sweeping gun control legislation and repeal the death penalty, but reaching an agreement on a new law governing dog bites has twice resulted in a stalemate between the chambers. Legislators have another chance to solve this problem for the citizens of Maryland, and they should put politicking aside to pass common-sense compromise legislation that is fair to dog owners and to victims. Here's hoping the third time's the charm.

Tami Santelli is Maryland Senior State Director for The Humane Society of the United States. Her email is tsantelli@humanesociety.org.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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