Maryland Legislature Overturns Court Ruling Regarding Pit Bulls, Applies Same Standard of Liability to All Dog Owners Regardless of Breed
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed a bill into law that overturns a controversial 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals decision regarding pit bull-type dogs. In Tracey v. Solesky, 50 A.3d 1075 (Md. App. 2012), the court modified the standard of negligence applied to attacks by pit bulls against humans, applying strict liability to dog owners and landlords who allow the dogs on premises they own or control. The decision met with substantial criticism from animal welfare advocates, landlords and other property owners, and many others. In addition to causing multiple evictions and surrenders of dogs to animal shelters, the decision may have made it more difficult for people to assert claims for damages by dogs that were not pit bulls. The new law applies the same standard of liability to all dog owners, regardless of the dog’s breed.
The Solesky case involved injuries to a young boy by a dog named Clifford. The boy required five hours of surgery and spent seventeen days in the hospital. His family sued the dog’s owner and the landlord, claiming that the landlord knew or had reason to know of the dog’s dangerous tendencies. The landlord presented several questions to the Court of Appeals, including whether harboring American Staffordshire Terriers, or “pit bulls,” is an “inherently dangerous activity” that would support the common law strict liability standard for a landlord. Id. at 1078.
The court ruled that “pit bulls” are “aggressive and vicious” by nature and expressly modified the common law negligence rule to hold landlords strictly liable for injuries caused by such dogs. Id. at 1079-80. A strict liability standard would apply if the plaintiff could prove that the landlord knew of the presence of a pit bull or cross-breed pit bull. A dissenting opinion by Judge Clayton Greene, Jr. noted the lack of expert opinion regarding pit bull temperament. It also noted the lack of a clear definition of “pit bull,” and the opinion of many experts that the term is “a generic category encompassing the American Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and the American Pit Bull Terrier.” Id. at 1096. See also Weigel v. Maryland, 950 F.Supp.2d 811, 822 (D. Md. 2013).