Court partly backs off pit bull ruling

Maryland's highest court on Tuesday partly backed off its April decision that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, admitting that it went too far when it applied its standard to cross-bred dogs. But the new ruling, which affects only purebred animals, does not clear the waters, according to experts.

The issue, they say, is that "pit bull" is not a specific dog breed and that it's difficult to positively identify a pit bull.

In a rare reversal, the Court of Appeals had granted a motion for reconsideration in a case — brought by the parents of a 10-year-old boy who was mauled by a pit bull — against the dog owner's landlord.

The court's 4-3 decision to impose a standard of "strict liability" in cases involving purebred and cross-bred pit bulls sparked a protest among owners of the pets and animal welfare advocates.

Many expressed concern that the strict liability standard, under which it is not necessary to show negligence by the pet owner, would lead landlords to bar pit bulls from their properties rather than risk being sued when the animals attack. Critics of the ruling expressed concern that owners would be forced to choose between their pets and their homes and that many pit bulls would be taken to shelters and euthanized as a result.

The ruling led to a failed effort to override the court in the special session of the General Assembly that ended last week.

Tuesday's ruling raised further questions among dog experts.

"There actually is no such thing as a pure-breed pit bull," said Cory Smith, a senior director with the Humane Society of the United States. "It's not a breed of dog."

There are three types of purebred dogs that are of the pit-bull variety: the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier, she said. But the vast majority of dogs most people consider pit bulls — with big heads, strong jaws and muscular bodies — are of mixed lineage.

"There is no way to visually identify a dog as a pit bull and there's no way to even prove it using DNA," Smith said. "Even veterinarians ... have a hard time identifying a dog as a pit bull."

The Humane Society said the original ruling would have applied to about 70,000 pit bull-type dogs in Maryland. Smith guessed only a fraction of those are purebred pit varieties.

David Favre, the Nancy Heathcote professor of property and animal law at the Michigan State University College of Law, said that because "pit bull" is not a registered breed, it's hardly definable by law.

"I have no idea what constitutes a 'pure breed' pit bull," he wrote The Baltimore Sun in an email. "As nothing is registered, it would be impossible to make a factual finding that a particular dog is a pure breed."

Tami Santelli, Maryland director for the Humane Society of the United States, said the new ruling could bring limited relief for some dog owners but allows a bad decision to stand.

"There's really no question that families are going to be torn apart over the next four months until the General Assembly comes back in January," Santelli said. She said Armistead Homes Corp. recently told all pit-bull owners they would have to get rid of their dogs.

In a decision written by Judge Alan M. Wilner, the court stood by its finding about purebred pit bulls but canceled its reference to cross-breds.

Wilner, a retired judge who sat with the court on the original case, wrote that having reread the briefs and the dissent in the case, he believes the decision to extend the ruling to cross-bred pit bulls was "both gratuitous and erroneous."

The judge wrote that it is not clear what "cross-bred" means.

While the ruling grants relief to owners of cross-bred pit bulls, it doesn't appear to help the plaintiff who sought reconsideration of the ruling. Wilner denied landlord Dorothy M. Tracey's request that the court revisit its decision about purebred pit bulls, saying there was nothing "unconstitutional or unfair" about holding her liable for what he called the "gruesome damage" to Dominic Solesky in 2007 by a pit bull she allowed a tenant to keep on her East Towson property.

Wilner said nothing in the court record showed that Tracey had ever contended the animal was anything other than a pit bull terrier.

Dominic's parents sued the landlord after finding they could not win any meaningful damages from the dog's owner.

Kevin A. Dunne, the attorney for the Solesky family, said the reconsideration would have no effect on the case against Tracey, which has been sent back to the Baltimore County Circuit Court for trial.

"I believe the court attempted to hone its original decision by reducing the overall effect but not changing its core holdings," he said.

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