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).

The Solesky ruling essentially required plaintiffs to prove something that even experts in dog breeds could not agree upon. By putting the focus almost exclusively on “pit bull”-type dogs, the ruling also made it more difficult for people injured by other breeds of dogs, which may be just as likely to attack a person as a “pit bull,” to assert a negligence claim. A person attacked by any other type of dog had a higher burden of proof, despite the lack of any solid evidence that one type of dog is more dangerous than another.

Under the new law, all dog owners are held to the same negligence standard. The standard becomes one of strict liability if the dog is loose from the owner’s property. A landlord is not liable unless the plaintiff proves that they knew or should have known that the dog was actually dangerous..

The personal injury attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen help people in the Washington, DC area recover damages for injuries they have suffered due to the negligent or unlawful conduct of others. Please contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we may be of assistance to you.

More Blog Posts:

Maryland Legislators Debate Law That Would Help Dog Bite Victims, Maryland Accident Law Blog, March 22, 2013
Hot Weather May Bring More Maryland Dog Attacks, Maryland Accident Law Blog, May 31, 2011
7-Year-Old Girl Injured in Dundalk, Maryland Dog Attack Sustained Severe Facial Injuries, Maryland Accident Law Blog, March 26, 2011

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