A task force of lawmakers reviewing a court ruling that singles out pit bulls as “inherently dangerous” heard from animal rights advocates on Tuesday who oppose the decision and from the parents of a severely injured boy who prompted the court's action.
Delegate Curt Anderson, the co-chairman of the task force, said members are exploring how to make owners of dogs besides pit bulls more liable.
“If your dog bites somebody, you are liable. Period,” said Anderson, D-Baltimore. “That's what the law should be.”
The ruling by the state's highest court means pit bull owners could be liable for bites without previous evidence of a dog being dangerous.
The task force may examine the possibility of requiring owners to get insurance for their dogs, in case they cause serious injury to someone, Anderson said. Lawmakers are working to draft legislation for a potential special session next month or for the regular session in January.
“It's likely that it's going to be during the regular session, because I'm not hearing a lot of push for the special session, so that'll give us plenty of time to come up with something comprehensive that helps dog owners, landlords, insurance companies but most importantly the victims of these maulings,” Anderson said.
The panel's first hearing drew the parents of 15-year-old Dominic Solesky, who was badly injured in a pit bull attack when he was 10 in 2007.
Anthony Solesky told lawmakers he has felt like the attack on his son has been minimized by an outcry from animal rights activists who have vocally condemned the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling out of animal welfare concerns.
“It's not possible to put an animal before a human being and then surmise that somehow we're going to get the right situation, so I think that's the biggest key,” Solesky said.
Irene Solesky, Dominic's mother, underscored that not all dogs can cause the sort of damage pit bulls can. Her son was bitten on the face, neck and thigh, where his femoral artery was damaged.
“This looked like a shark attack, and not every dog -- no matter how bad the dog owner is -- is going to be able to inflict that kind of damage,” Irene Solesky said.
Opponents contend breed-specific laws are not effective. They also say the ruling fails to adequately define a pit bull.
The incoming chair of the animal law section of the Maryland State Bar Association described the court ruling as “a dangerous form of judicial activism” that imposes strict liability on owners and keepers of pit bulls and pit bull mixes, while extending liability to landlords, without specific guidance on when someone would be liable.
“There are really no parameters to work with,” said Heidi Meinzer.
She also recommended a two-tiered approach in which less egregious incidents could be handled differently than more serious ones.
The Maryland state director of for the Humane Society of the United States said the ruling is unprecedented, because it singles out one breed.
“This Court of Appeals is the first court in the United States that we have found to unilaterally adopt a breed specific standard of liability, and this kind of policy decision is really best left up to the Legislature,” said Tami Santelli. “The court made this decision without conclusive scientific evidence, without opportunity for public hearing, without expert testimony. It really just relied on its own judgment.”