House panel OKs narrow version of pit bull bill

A House committee approved a much narrower version of a bill on injuries caused by dogs than the Senate passed last week, imposing a tighter liability standard for bites only in cases where the animals are running loose.

The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously for the legislation Monday night and sent it to the House floor for possible action Tuesday. The legislation, one of only a handful of bills being taken up in the current special session on expanded gambling, is a reaction to a widely criticized Court of Appeals decision finding that pit bull are inherently dangerous and their owners should face a stricter liability standard than owners of other dogs when the animals bite.

The House version is significantly different from the Senate approach, which was to impose a standard of strict liability on all dog owners for injuries caused by their pets -- with certain exceptions -- without regard to breed.

Both versions of the bill overturn the court's action imposing a strict liability standard on landlords of pit bull owners. Animal rights groups had expressed concern that the decision could prompt landlords to tell their tenants they must get rid of their pets or move out -- possibly forcing people to bring their dogs to shelters.

Members of the House panel expressed concern that the Senate's approach to the liability issue would prompt insurance companies to raise their rates for household coverage on dog owners. Under a strict liability standard, a plaintiff would not have to prove a dog owner was negligent.

Maryland is one of a minority of states where the so-called "one free bite" rule has prevailed. That means that the owner could only be held liable if the plaintiff were able to show the owner knew or should have known the dog the dog was dangerous because of a previous incident.

The House panel decided to scrap that common law defense only in cases where owners failed to keep their dogs from running loose. The standard would apply to pit bulls and other breeds equally.

"The old rule of the one bite remains except if your dog is running at large," explained Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who co-chaired a task force on the pit bull issue.

The committee also put a sunset date of Sept. 30 on the bill in the expectation that legislators will try to craft a permanent policy during the legislative session that starts in January.

Del. Michael Smigiel, an Upper Shore Republican, praised the House compromise.

"It's an incentive for people to be responsible owners and keep their dogs penned up and on a leash," he said.



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