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Dog Bite Fight Returns To Annapolis

Christopher Connelly/WYPR

 The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up a bill Thursday that could settle a dog fight has been brewing in the General Assembly for two years. At issue is how the state’s laws should codify liability when a dog bites.

  At the Anne Arundel County SPCA, dog behavior trainer Joe Mayer plays with a dog named Ace.

Ace is a pit bull. He’s a year and a half old, and he can’t see – his eyes had to be removed because of severe glaucoma that had been untreated when he arrived at the shelter.

“He’s really friendly, still getting used to not having his eyes, but he’s pretty sweet, playful,” Mayer says.

Mayer says pit bulls are by far the most common breed at the shelter. They’re also the hardest to adopt out after they get there. Partly, that’s because they have a reputation for being vicious or more likely to attack.

“It’s a bad rap and that’s about it. They’re not everything they’re set out to be,” Mayer says.

Mayer says he has two pit bulls of his own. He says they’re great with kids and they’re just like his Shiba Inu. But legally, his pit bulls are different than his Shiba Inu.

In Maryland, if a pit bull attacks a person unprovoked, the pit bull’s owner is always liable to pay damages to the victim. For any other breed, a victim has to prove the dog’s owner knew the dog was dangerous in order to win in court.

That distinction came from a 2012 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals. The court said pit bulls are “inherently dangerous” and therefore owners are automatically liable if their pit attacks. And if you’re a landlord that rents to a pitbull owner, you’re on the hook too, which has meant some landlords wouldn’t rent to pit bull owners. Others threatened to evict their pit bull-owning tenants.

The general assembly has gone back and forth on how to address the decision since the ruling and there’s been a lot of ink spilled over whose bill best serves dog owners and victims.

Del. Luiz Simmons says that if it were up to him, the legislature would overturn the ruling and codify the common law precedent which held that the victim of a dog bite had to prove that the owner knew the dog was dangerous to win compensation in court. But he says that’s not politically feasible.

Sen. Brian Frosh says liability and the kind of evidence victims and dog owners would need to present have been the sticking points.

“There's a spectrum of liability in our country. It ranges from one bite rule which we have in Maryland that says unless your dog bites somebody a second time, you're not really on notice that the animal’s dangerous,” Frosh said, which means not liable for damages.

On the other side of the spectrum is strict liability: basically, if your dog bites someone without being provoked, you’re responsible because it’s your dog.

Sen. Frosh and Del. Simmons have produced a bill that’s somewhere in the middle – it gives dog owners a chance to prove they had no reason to expect their dog to be dangerous before the attack, but presumes that a dog owner knows their dog is dangerous, leaving the onus on the dog owner and not the victim to present evidence supporting their claim.

The bill would apply to all dogs -- pit bulls aren’t treated any different from other dogs. And it says landlords aren’t automatically liable.  

Del. Simmons proposed a similar bill last year, which passed the House but died in the Senate.

Sen. Frosh says this is compromise “that’s right down the middle” and therefore has a good chance of passing.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who sits on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee with Frosh, says it’s no compromise. “What that is is the ratification of the one free bite rule.”

The Baltimore County Democrat says the one bite rule borders on immoral because it leaves victims stuck with medical bills if the dog hasn’t bitten anyone before.

“A victim of an attack who has done nothing wrong, who has not tormented or teased or invited the attack in anyway,” Zirkin says, “ a blameless victim should be compensated for the damage that is done or the injuries when somebody else's dog attacks them.”

Zirkin’s got his own bill that is also breed neutral and lets landlords off the hook. But his bill says dog owners should be strictly liable if their pet hurts someone.

The two bills will be heard in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Thursday.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.