A controversial court ruling in April that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous" is not yet in effect and must survive an appeal before it can be applied as Maryland law, according to an opinion released this week by the state attorney general's office.
The opinion, written by Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe in response to a request from Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur for advice on how to understand the ruling, says a motion for reconsideration of the ruling now before the Maryland Court of Appeals "delays the effect of the decision."
In April, the state's highest court held that pit bulls and mixed pit bull breeds are different from other dogs in that they are dangerous by nature. The ruling increased the liability of pit bull owners and others with a modicum of control over the animals, such as landlords, by removing the need for those bringing suit after a dog attack to prove they knew the dog had a history of being dangerous. That proof was previously required and is still required for other breeds.
The case originated in Baltimore County Circuit Court when the family of 10-year-old Dominic Solesky, who was attacked by a neighbor's pit bull in 2007, filed suit against the dog owner's landlord, Dorothy M. Tracey.
A circuit judge threw out the claim, ruling there was no evidence that Tracey was negligent, but the Court of Special Appeals overturned the decision and the Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.
A motion for reconsideration of the high court's ruling was filed, but Mizeur said she immediately began receiving calls from pit bull owners getting eviction notices from their landlords, and from animal shelters unsure how to handle the animals, given the new liability concerns.
The Humane Society of the United States called the court's ruling "unprecedented" in its application not just to animal owners but to landlords and others with assumed power to control the dogs, and in its "singling out of one particular type of dogs."
Mizeur, a Democrat, and Del. Michael Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican, co-sponsored a bill during May's special session of the General Assembly that would have overturned the court's ruling, but it never gained traction.
Instead, a joint task force on pit bulls is working on a law that would cut the scope of the ruling, Mizeur said.
"We're trying to find the sweet spot between protecting people who have been wronged by a bad dog and an irresponsible dog owner, and not having every family who owns a pit bull having to wrestle with the loss of their beloved family pet because of a court ruling," Mizeur said.
Mizeur and the Humane Society hailed Rowe's opinion as an important, though temporary, reprieve while legislators work to find a more permanent solution.
"It's welcome relief for thousands of Maryland families who should never have to choose between their beloved family pet and their home," Mizeur said.