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Legal Matters: Dog bite law change affects strict liability rule

Comment in the inbox: information in the Legal Matters column published May 9 was, “factually not accurate in how Maryland law treats dog bite cases.”

The reader identified himself as an attorney who handles such cases. He emailed, “[T]here are certain circumstances of strict liability but the majority of cases must be proven with negligence.” He added, “... I thought it was important for the public to know that we are actually not a strict liability state contrary to the assertion made in your article.”

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The assertion he quarrels with was taken from a website, dogbitelaw.com/one-bite-state/maryland-dog-bite-law. Under the heading “Maryland Dog Bite Law,” it said, “Maryland is a statutory strict liability state where the attacking dog was at large, and where the dog owner cannot prove that he neither knew nor should have known that his dog was vicious or dangerous.”

The information from the website is, in fact, outdated. The reader is correct. The General Assembly changed the applicable section of the law in 2019. The statute now in effect says in part, “In an action against an owner of a dog for damages for personal injury or death caused by the dog, evidence that the dog caused the personal injury or death creates a rebuttable presumption that the owner knew or should have known that the dog had vicious or dangerous propensities.”

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One effect of the law change is that if the victim of a dog bite or other injury (or death) caused by the dog files suit, the court will presume that the owner knew the dog was likely to act in a vicious or dangerous way, but the owner now has a chance to counter that presumption.

The law change eliminates the strict liability rule that made the owner responsible for damages caused by the dog’s actions even if the owner did not know the dog would act aggressively. Although the law directs that the judge starts with the presumption that the owner knew how the dog was likely to act, the owner has a chance to prove that was not the case.

If the dog’s owner wants to counter the presumption that he knew the dog would act viciously or dangerously, he may be able to introduce evidence such as proof that the bite victim was tormenting, teasing or provoking the dog, or other evidence showing that the owner could not have anticipated the dog’s actions.

The law provides an exemption from liability for the owner of a dog running at large who causes injury, death or loss of property, under specific circumstances. Liability may not be held against the owner if the injured person was trespassing, committing or attempting to commit another criminal offense on the owner’s property, or was committing or trying to commit a criminal offense against another person.

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The law also provides that the dog’s owner is not liable if the injured person was teasing, tormenting, abusing or provoking the dog.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at denglelaw@gmail.com.

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