Senate moves to compromise on dog bites

If the third try's the charm, the Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill aimed at untangling for the third time an emotional controversy over dog owners' liability if their pets bite someone.

The bill would reverse a Court of Appeals opinion declaring that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous", a decision that has prompted many landlords in the state to evict the dogs - or threaten to kick out their owners - to avoid potential liability if someone is bitten on the premises.


Pit bull owners contend the decision is unfair and has caused many dogs to be abandoned or euthanized, even if they only resemble the breed. But in attempting to fix the pit bull ruling, lawmakers have squabbled the last two years over where the line ought to be drawn in judging whether a dog's owner  or a landlord should pay medical bills if a pet attacks someone. Two previous attempts to resolve the issue have foundered in disagreements with the House of Delegates.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedcings Committee, presented the latest bill as a "breed-neutral" compromise that he argued would make it easier for bite victims to prove that the offending dog had a history of attacks. The measure also would lift the liability cloud over landlords, he said, by holding them liable only if they knew or should have known a dog on the premises was vicious.


But Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, called the measure "immoral" and "wrong," arguing it would make it easier for pet owners to evade responsbility for medical bills if their dog hadn't bitten anyone before.

"They should be responsible if it's the first bite or the 20th bite," Zirkin argued.

Zirkin proposed an amendment to establish "strict liability" for dog bites, so that any victim would be entitled to compensation unless he or she was trespassing, the animal was provoked, or there was soem other contributing factor. He said that essentially is what the Senate approved in two prior yerars, only to have it rejected by House members.  Delegates favor returning to a "one-bite" standard for all breeds, which prevailed before the court ruling, meaning an owner could avoid liability if there was credible evidence the dog had never done anything like that before.

Frosh acknowledged that he had largely shared Zirkin's view of the issue in prior years, but opted for this measure because he believed it would pass the House. While not perfect, he said, the bill was better than the status quo. To stand pat on what the Senate has passed before would almost certainly be rejected in the House, he warned, leaving the two chambers at loggerheads again.

Frosh and Zirkin, both lawyers, sparred over court rulings and legal standards throughout the prolonged debate.  Other senators chimed in, some with personal stories about being nipped or scared by others' dogs.

"We've gone to the dogs, folks," Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller quipped at one point.

"This is a very tough issue," said Miller as the debate wrapped up.  Noting strong feelings expressed on both sides, he asked, "do you want to accept hte compromise, or do you want to do better?"

Zirkin's amendment to impose strict liability for dog bites failed 22 to 25.  A second amendment also fell short at first, which would make it easier for bite victims to collect if a dog is "running at large," off a leash. But the Senate then reconsidered the change and narrowly approved it.