Senate president declares impasse on pit bull bill

The General Assembly deadlocked Tuesday night over legislation that would have overruled a widely criticized court decision labeling pit bulls as inherently dangerous, apparently killing the bill in this summer's special session.

Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Millersaid he did not believe there would be any action on the legislation because "the difference is very stark" between House and Senate versions of the bill.


Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, spoke on the Senate floor just before 9 p.m. as the chamber gathered to consider a bill on gambling expansion, the main purpose for a special session that was expected to continue long into the night.

After conferring with Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, Miller told reporters that the bill was all but dead. Miller said the Senate would neither concur with the House changes nor go to a conference committee — the two routes by which the two chambers typically reach agreement on bills that are not identical.

"It will be difficult to come up with a compromise on dogs," he said.

The issue arose last spring after the Maryland Court of Appeals held that pit bulls are an inherently dangerous breed whose owners should be subjected to a higher liability standard. The state's highest court also held that a pit bull owner's landlord could be held to a stricter liability standard.

The decision came in the case of Dominic Solesky, who at age 10 was attacked by a neighbor's pit bill and nearly killed in 2007. The boy's family sued the dog owner's landlord, but the trial court judge threw out the lawsuit, ruling that there was no evidence that the landlord had been negligent. The Court of Appeals held that no proof of negligence is necessary in the case of pit bulls.

The ruling brought an outcry from pit bull lovers and animal-rights organizations who expressed concern that landlords would force tenants who own the dogs to move. They contended that in many cases, dog owners could be forced to choose between their dogs and their homes, possibly filling shelters with pit bulls that couldn't be adopted.

House SpeakerMichael E. Buschand Miller agreed to add the issue to the agenda for the special session. But once they got to work on a bill, the two chambers took very different approaches to crafting a remedy.

The Senate decided to overrule the breed distinction introduced by the appeals court and to treat all dog breeds the same while easing the liability burden on landlords. The Senate also decided to abolish a common law standard in Maryland that in effect allowed a dog "one free bite" before its owner could be held to a standard known as strict liability.

In effect, the law says that if there was no previous evidence that a dog was dangerous, the owner did not face automatic liability if the animal bit a person whose actions did not provoke the incident. The Senate's position was that if a person owns a dog, he or she should be held responsible if the dog bites.

The House Judiciary Committee took a far different approach, applying a strict liability standard only in cases where the dog was running loose. Some members expressed concern that applying strict liability to all dogs would drive up insurance rates for all pet owners. Other delegates said the legislature did not have enough information and was acting in haste.

Tami Santelli, Maryland senior state director for The Humane Society of the United States, expressed disappointment that the Senate was ready to let the bill die.

"It's really unfortunate that thousands of Maryland families will be forced to choose either their dogs or their homes in the next four months," she said.