General Assembly to discuss pit bull legislation

After animal advocates protested a ruling by the state's highest court deeming all pit bulls inherently dangerous, state lawmakers now will consider a bill to overturn the decision during the special session this week.

On Monday, Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian Frosh said a circulated draft bill would make owners of any breed legally responsible for bites.

In its April ruling, the Maryland Court of Appeals distinguished pit bull and pit bull mixes from other breeds, giving greater liability to dog owners and landlords who permit tenants to have them, in response to a 2007 attack on a Towson boy. The decision outraged pet owners and animal-rights groups, who say the court's decision unfairly targets dogs based on breed when such laws should be based on the dog's behavior.

"Dogs should be judged on their behavior not their breed," said Frank Branchini, a board member for Maryland Votes for Animals, a political action committee organizing a rally scheduled Thursday to persuade legislators to approve the measure.

The proposed bill also would reverse the court's decision that extends the liability to landlords.

Under the court's decision, Branchini said, strict liability was extended to both residential and business landlords, including pet stores, groomers, trainers and veterinarians.

Dog owners alone should be held responsible, he said. "We're fine to have it go back to the common law, or strict liability."

Before the April ruling, the courts operated under what's often referred to as the "one-bite rule," meaning a victim of a dog attack intending to file a lawsuit had to prove that a dog's owner knew it had a history of being dangerous.

But Kevin A. Dunne, attorney for Tony Solesky, whose son was attacked by a pit bull in 2007, said "the responsibility of dog attacks should be on the owner."

"No one wants to talk about the victims," said Dunne, who added that Solesky told him that "humans should still count more in our society."

Since the court's decision, the Maryland SPCA has received "hundreds of calls" from concerned pet owners, said executive director Aileen Gabbey.

The court's decision unfairly targets some pit bull owners when there is no clear definition of a pit bull breed and when it is difficult for even shelter workers to correctly identify dog breeds, Gabbey said.

"What we don't want is breed specific legislation," she said. "We don't know exactly what they are considering."

Although Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he's "optimistic" that a bill could pass during the special session that starts Thursday, he cautioned that the issue is complex and could be derailed if opposition arises.

Frosh said that he does not believe there would be time in a special session to consider multiple bills and amendments. "If there is not a broad consensus, this is not going to happen," he said.

Some members already are raising concerns. Del. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, sent an email Monday saying a measure creating strict liability for all dog owners "is even worse" than the initial court decision.

"It will no doubt lead to insurance companies creating long lists of dogs that will be excluded from coverage or they simply won't extend coverage, at all, to homes where such dogs are kept," Kramer wrote.

In June, the Maryland Insurance Administration began tracking dog-related complaints. Two complaints have been filed for nonrenewal of homeowners policies and one for denial of a claim, according to a department spokeswoman.