Maryland pit bull ruling is challenged in federal court

(Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

A resident at the low-income Armistead Gardens housing development is suing the state in federal court, asking judges to strike down a recent court ruling that pit bulls are inherently dangerous.

In a complaint filed Wednesday, lawyers for Joseph Weigel argue that he would have to move out of his home at the East Baltimore housing complex if he refuses to give up his dog.


In August, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that purebred pit bulls are "inherently dangerous" and that landlords could potentially be strictly liable if a pit bull attacks a person on their property.

After the ruling, Armistead Homes Corp., which manages Armistead Gardens, told residents to get rid of pure and mixed-breed pit bulls or face eviction, according to the suit.


Weigel's suit argues that in the ruling, the appeals court unconstitutionally overrode the property rights of people like Weigel by making them choose between their homes and their pets.

Charles H. Edwards, Weigel's attorney, said that if a restraining order is not issued, Weigel and his dog will be homeless before the end of September. While Weigel is the only resident of the development named in the suit, Edwards said it could apply to as many as 500 dog owners who live there.

"These people are faced with a very hard choice — homelessness or euthanization of their dogs," Edwards said.

Armistead Gardens did not respond to requests for comment on the suit. And the Maryland attorney general's office declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

The original ruling sprang from a 2007 incident in which a young boy was mauled by a pit bull in Towson. When the dog's owner declared bankruptcy, the boy's family took forward a case against the owner's landlord.

In April, the Court of Appeals ruled that both purebred pit bulls and pit bull mixes were inherently dangerous, overturning a previous law that an owner must have known their dog was dangerous in order to be held strictly liable.

Then in August, the appeals court partly walked back the ruling, applying it only to purebred pit bulls. But experts say that might not have changed the effect of the ruling because "pit bull" is not a breed of dog, rather an umbrella term for different breeds.

The General Assembly made an unsuccessful attempt to revise the ruling in the special session, and is expected to try again next year.

Edwards said he knows he has an uphill battle in his challenge.

"It's an incredibly difficult case to win, but you got to do something," he said.

While the court made clear that the ruling was not a ban on pit bulls and that their owners would not have to give up their dogs, Tami Santelli, Maryland director of the Humane Society of the United States, said its effect on renters could be "more insidious".

Stacey Evans, the chairwoman of the animal law section of the Maryland State Bar Association, believes landlords could be held liable even if they did not know a pit bull was on their property. Animal protection groups are worried that the ruling would lead to tenants abandoning pit bulls in order to stay in their homes.


"Everyone was pretty nervous in April when the case came down," Santelli said.

While the Humane Society estimates the ruling could affect as many as 70,000 dogs in Maryland, Santelli said she had not heard of large numbers of animals being given up to shelters. But she said homeowners and condo associations have contacted the organization to say they are updating policies to ban pit bulls in common areas.

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