Pit bull panel looks to one standard for all breeds

A General Assembly work group looking into how the legislature should respond to a court decision ruling pit bulls inherently dangerous wants to rewrite the state's liability laws to treat all breeds equally and to do away with the doctrine that essentially gives each dog one free bite, a co-chairman of the panel said.

Del. Curt Anderson, the House chairman of Task Force to Study Court Decision Regarding Pit Bulls, said the consensus of the panel was that the Court of Appeals was off the mark when it singled out a particular breed in a ruling this spring.

The Baltimore Democrat said most of the invited witnesses the task force heard from were pro-dog advocates who opposed the ruling. But he said the panel also heard from Anthony Solesky, the father of a boy who at age 10 was nearly  in a pit bull attack in Towson. It was his case against the landlord of the dog owner that led to the appellate court ruling.

Kevin Dunne, Dominic Solesky's lawyer, said the father's message was that lawmakers ought to focus less on protecting the right to earn a certain breed of dog and more on protecting people from attack an providing care for victims.

Anderson said the panel received Andrew Solesky's message:

"He put in perspective the need to protect people as well," Anderson said.

Anderson said the task force is leaning in the direction of adopting a strict liability standard for all breeds of dogs and doing away with a doctrine that essentially gives a dog owner a pass if the animal had not previously shown itself to be a biter or otherwise vicious.

"The new standard would be if your dog bites somebody, you should be held liable -- people," he said. But he said the panel is also looking to make it more difficult to hold landlords liable for their tenants' pets' actions.

Anderson said dog owners would be free to purchase liability insurance or go without, but he said the panel is considering a system that would allow insurers to set their own standards on how much to charge for coverage of various breeds.

"Insurance companies may not even want to insure someone who owns a pit bull," he said.

The task force was established by House SpeakerMichael E. Buschand Senate President Thomas V. Miller after the court ruling when the possibility emerged that Gov.Martin O'Malleymight call a summer special session to deal with the issue of gambling expansion.

Anderson said he would prefer not to deal with the dog liability issue this summer but to put it off until next year, when the legislation could receive a full set of hearings. "I think it would take an entire legislative session," he said.

But Sen.Lisa A. Gladden, another member of the task force, said the panel is proceeding under the assumption that there will be a special session and that pit bulls will be on the agenda. She said task force members are  planning to  meet again next Tuesday with the understanding that they will try to develop a proposal for the possible July 9 session.

Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, agreed that the panel is heading in the direction of changing the liability rules for all dogs -- not just pit bulls. "Common law says every dog gets one bite," she said. That, Gladden said, is likely to change.

Dunne, the Soleskys' attorney, said he was pleased to see that most of the lawmakers seem to have backed off some of the early calls to simply undo the Court of Appeal decision. He said it appeared they were seeking a more reasoned approach that also takes into account the victim's interests.

Among the groups that appeared at Tuesday's meeting were the Maryland State Bar Association, the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Farm Foundation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and various organizations representing property owners and insurance companies.

The fruits of the collective labors could be delayed until next year if another work group is unable to forge a consensus on the issue of gambling expansion. Gov.  Martin O'Malley has said he would call a special session if it appears the House and Senate has reached agreement on casino legislation. If so, both presiding officers have indicated they would be open to taking up a pit bull measure as well. But there has been no significant support for a special session to deal with the issue of pit bulls alone, even though some groups have expressed concerned that renters could be faced with a choice between getting rid of their pit bulls or losing their homes if the court decision is not overturned.






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