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Dog Bite Liability Measure Fails in Maryland House

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    On the final day of the Maryland General Assembly, lawmakers failed to pass a measure that would change a court ruling that designated pit bulls as an “inherently dangerous” breed.

    The bill, which received unanimous approval from the Senate Monday, stalled in the House of Delegates. House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the House did not have enough votes to pass the measure.

    “From a comprehensive standpoint there were a lot very good bills passed,” said Busch, underscoring the passage of several measures this session, including a death penalty repeal bill and gun control legislation. “There were so many pieces of legislation that had a great impact on the citizens of Maryland. The only one we did not come to resolve, unfortunately, was the dog legislation.”

    The legislation would have required all dog owners to prove by clear and convincing evidence they had no prior knowledge that their dog was prone to biting for incidents involving victims 12 years old and younger. For older victims, owners would have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that they had no knowledge their dog was prone to biting, a lesser standard.

    The requirement would not apply if the victim was trespassing or was bitten while committing a crime.

    Lawmakers sought to address a court ruling last year that made pit bull owners and landlords strictly liable for bites without previous evidence of a dog being dangerous. The court's decision brought 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.

    Under the failed legislation, all breeds would be treated equally and landlords would not be held to the strict liability test.

    “The big issue on the ground is the notices that people are getting from landlords, saying that they have to get rid of their dogs,” said Tami Santelli, Maryland state director for The Humane Society of the United States. “I don't think that there is any question that this issue will be back next year.”

    The Humane Society estimates that about 70,000 Marylanders have pit bull-type dogs.

    Last year's ruling 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.

    Opponents of the measure said the legislation would make it difficult for dog owners to get homeowner's insurance at affordable rates.

    “If the people who own pit bulls can't get insurance now, what do you think is going to happen when if you take the other 98 percent of dog owners and put strict liability on them?” asked Delegate Luiz Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat.

    Supporters of the legislation argued that the bill was needed to protect children.

    “The number of fatal dog bites and serious injury-causing dog bite has gone up dramatically over the last two decades,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, also a Montgomery County Democrat. “We are saying that if you've got a dog that is violent and dangerous, you are strictly responsible if it goes after a kid.”

    The legislation emerged out of a conference committee after the House and Senate reached a stalemate earlier in the session over the burden of proof an owner would need to meet in court about whether there was reason to believe the dog was likely to bite someone. House members wanted owners to prove by a preponderance of the evidence they had no prior knowledge their dog was prone to biting. The Senate wanted dog owners to prove it by clear and convincing evidence, a higher standard.

    Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said lawmakers had reached a compromise that was acceptable to all.