Negotiators reach deal on pit bull bill

Senate and House negotiators reached a compromise Monday on legislation that would overturn a court decision that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous."

The Senate ratified the deal unanimously. The House will vote on it later in the day. Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he wants to read the final bill but is inclined to sign it.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who chaired the Senate conference committee, said the compromise would set a different standard of liability based on the age of the victim.

The bill undoes two effects of last year's Court of Appeals decison: creating a separate liability standard for pit bulls and holding landlords to that strict test. The legislation treats all breeds equally and  returns landlords to where they stood before the decision -- able to avoid liability unless it could be shown they knew or should have known a tenant's dog was vicious.

Raskin said the compromise would impose a standard of strict liability for all dog owners -- regardless of breed -- when the dog bite victim is 12 or under. Such a standard means the dog owner will be held liable in almost all cases involving children -- even when there were no previous signs the dog was dangerous. He said there are still exceptions to the standard in cases where the child was trespassing or committing a violation that would be a crime if the offender were an adult.

"Why should anybody other than me be having to pay for my dog mauling their child?" Raskin said.

For older victims, Raskin said, the standard would be preponderance of the evidence -- an easier standard under which dog owners could avoid liability if they could persuade a jury they didn't know the animal was dangerous.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who pushed the Senate to take a hard line in negotiations, said compromise reflects a view that "children should be protected at all costs from bites."

Even before the deal was finalized, a key member of the House of Judiciary Committee said he would ask the full House of Delegates to reject the deal.

Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons, also a Montgomery County Democrat, said the strict liability standard would make it difficult for dog owners to get homeowner's insurance at affordable rates -- if they could get it at all. He said that would lead many dog owners to go without insurance -- in some cases leaving plaintiffs with little ability to collect.

Minor Carter, a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, said the industry has "real concerns" about the compromise. He said his clients object to the fact that the bill creates no exception to the dog owner's responsibility in cases where a child 7 and older has provoked the animal.

"Certain companies will either not write policies or will exclude liability for dogs," he said.

But Raskin told the Senate that about 30 states use a strict liability standard and that he was aware of none in which insurers dropped coverage or raised rates for dog owners.

Simmons, despite his passionate interest in the issue, was left off the conference committee after he publicly criticized the chairman of the Senate committee handling the bill, Montgomery Democratic Sen. Brian E. Frosh, in harsh personal terms.

The pit bull issue, which earlier in the session appeared as if it would be one of the first to be resolved in this year's session, became one of the highest-profile bills to come down to the wire as the General Assembly races toward a midnight deadline.

Animal rights advocates have warned that if no bill was passed, many pit bull owners could be forced out of their homes by landlords concerned about the liability they would face under a court ruling handed down last year. The advocates say that could have led to many pit bulls being turned in at shelters and euthanized.

Tami Santelli, Maryland director of the Humane Society of the United States, said she was relieved that the negotiators reached a compromise before the midnight deadline.



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