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Compromise bill crafted to address pit bull ruling

Thursday - 1/17/2013, 6:44pm  ET

BRIAN WITTE
Associated Press

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - All Maryland dog owners would bear greater responsibility for dog bites _ and landlords would have less _ under a compromise measure introduced this week in the House to address a controversial ruling that pit bulls are an "inherently dangerous" breed.

Last year's ruling by Maryland's highest court made pit bull owners and landlords strictly liable for dog bites without previous evidence of a dog being dangerous. The court's decision caused an outcry from pet owners and animal rights activists who said it focused on a single breed and made it harder for homeless pit bulls to be adopted.

Opponents also said the strict liability standard on landlords forced pet owners to choose between their pets and their homes.

Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the measure would restore the liability standard for landlords that existed before the ruling.

"We all believe that by doing that, we've taken away the incentive for landlords to get rid of tenants who have pit bulls or other dogs," Simmons said.

In effect, the bill increases protections for bite victims by creating a presumption that a dog owner should know the pet presented a danger. An owner who becomes a defendant after a bite will have a chance in court to try to prove the dog was not dangerous.

"So, in effect, most of these cases will now become questions for the jury," Simmons said. "Plaintiffs will be able to get their case to the jury without having to go through a lot of rigmarole of trying to prove that an owner knew of the dog's propensities, but the owner of the dog will still be able to defend himself or herself by presenting evidence that they didn't know."

Lawmakers tried to address the court decision in August during a short special session, which was called to expand gambling. However, differences between the House and Senate could not be settled at the time.

Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, described the measure as a compromise.

"It really is right down the middle, and I think it's a pretty good compromise and it looks like most of the interested parties like it as well," Frosh said. "So, it's fair to victims, it's fair to landlords, and it's fair to pet owners."

The bill has been placed on a fast track in Annapolis. Delegate Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George's, said a hearing is set for Jan. 30. The measure will be filed as emergency legislation, so it will immediately take effect if it passes the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley signs it.

Tami Santelli, the Maryland state director for the Humane Society of the United States, expressed her support for the bill.

"It's going to provide a lot of relief to a lot of people, not to mention the dogs, so we're really excited about this compromise," Santelli said.

The Court of Appeals ruling last year was made in the case of Dominic Solesky, who was badly injured in a pit bull attack in Baltimore County in 2007 when he was 10.


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