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Senate passes dog-bite liability bill

The Senate on Friday unanimously approved a bill to hold dog owners liable if their pet bites someone, unless they can prove they did not know it could happen.

The bill, which now goes to the House, would place a "rebuttable presumption" on pet owners that they knew or should have known their dog could bite. Owners could avoid liability if they can convince a jury their animal had never bitten anyone before or shown any other vicious tendencies.

The measure seeks to deal with a 2012 ruling by the Court of Appeals finding pit bulls "inherently dangerous" and holding their owners to stricter liability than those with pets of other breeds.  The bill the Senate passed treats all breeds the same. 

Its passage could end a two-year deadlock with the House of Delegates over the issue, as lawmakers differed over where to draw the line in placing responsibility for bites on pet owners and landlords.  The Senate previously had insisted on holding pet owners strictly liable for any bite, while the House had held out for something similar to what the Senate approved.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and trial lawyer who earlier in the week had called the bill "immoral" and "wrong," wound up supporting it. He had succeeded earlier in the week in amending the measure to apply strict liability for any attack by a dog running off leash, unless the victim was trespassing or had provoked the animal.  Before voting for the final bill, Zirkin called the revised version "a much better compromise."

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