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Dog Bite Deal Unravels in General Assembly

Mr. T in DC via Compfight

A delicately negotiated compromise intended to protect pit bull owners and landlords as well as dog bite victims collapsed today when the State Senate voted overwhelmingly to reject House terms.

Perhaps only lawyers could have a knock-down, drag-out fight over a legal standard of proof.

The House voted unanimously last month to support the presumption that dog owners are liable in bite cases, but would let them off the hook if they have a good defense. A Senate approach, tentatively approved today, would make the same presumption, but require that owners provide “clear and convincing evidence” that they had no reason to believe their dog was violent in order to escape liability.

Senator Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, authored the key change.

“In the name of compromise, we voted to make it just a little bit harder on dog owners whose dogs attack people. That’s what we’re talking about here:  victims. Blameless, usually children, victims with medical bills and scars and trauma.”  

Trouble is, Delegate Luiz Simmons, who negotiated the House version of the bill with Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian Frosh, doesn’t like the Zirkin change and feels betrayed by Frosh.

“What Frosh did was to go back on his word, he reneged on a compromise that had been painstakingly struck in the public’s interest, had been worked on for several months, and now he takes umbrage at the fact that I’m pointing this out.”

Yet Frosh, who has already pushed gun control legislation and a death penalty repeal through his committee this year, said he just didn’t have the votes to block what he called a minor change in the standard of proof.

“While I didn’t support it, I don’t see the Senate amendment …as being a major obstacle to working this issue out. I think reasonable people can figure this out and we will.”

But Simmons said there is no way he could see the House accepting the Senate bill, which he called the functional equivalent of strict liability for dog owners. The legislators have been trying since last summer to repair the law after a Court of Appeals decision that labeled all pit bull dogs as “inherently dangerous” and held their owners and landlords responsible for damages.

The Humane Society of Maryland and other animal rights groups have been most concerned about taking the stigma off pit bulls and their look-a-likes. Over the past year, scores of the dogs have been surrendered to animal shelters and many tenants have been forced to get rid of their dogs or move out.

Both the House and Senate bills-- which were offered as emergency measures to take effect as soon as enacted and signed into law--would apply the new law to all breeds of dog and free landlords of automatic responsibility.

Joe Getty, a Carroll County Republican, was among several senators arguing today that remedial action shouldn’t be put off any longer.

“And I think the most important thing of where we are right now is that we pass a bill this session. I don’t think this difference is sufficient enough to put the entire bill at risk.” 

But on a vote of 40 to 6, the Senate beat back an amendment that would have made the committee’s version closer to the House bill. Zirkin said he has no fear of time running out.

“Look there’s thirty days left in the session, and the answer is no, I’m not worried about that because that’s not the way it should be.”

He’s right. Thirty days for the legislature in session is practically a lifetime. Or at least feels like it.