In a case being closely watched by animal advocacy groups and property owners, the Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled that pit bulls (and pit mixes) are “inherently dangerous” and their owners and those in control of the dogs’ presence on their property (i.e., landlords) are subject to “strict liability” for injuries and damages caused by the dogs.
It’s the first time a state court has ruled such a thing, and now rumors are swirling that pit bull owners are being evicted by landlords fearful of being sued.
The case before the court, Tracey v. Solesky, involved the mauling of two boys in two separate incidents on one day in 2007 by a pit bull in a Baltimore suburb. The dog escaped, bit a boy, and was simply placed back in the same pen by his owner; he then escaped again and mauled a second boy who required five hours of surgery and spent 17 days in the hospital, followed by a year in rehabilitation.
According to the opinion, “When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous.” The victim only has to show that the attack was by a pit bull/mix, and that the person who controls the dog’s presence on the property knew this. The court’s bold move amounts to making law and is being decried by some lawmakers in Maryland, as well as animal advocates.
“The Solesky opinion amounts to judicial activism that is [fraught] with legal and practical problems,” says Heidi Meinzer, a Virginia lawyer and the chair-elect of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Animal Law Section, in written testimony to a state task force that is grappling with the opinion and trying to recommend changes to the law.
A motion has been filed asking the judges to reconsider their decision, and the state legislature is gearing up to address the issue. The Maryland Attorney General also released an opinion earlier in July saying that the court’s ruling must survive an appeal before it becomes law.
Meinzer says that while she’s not heard of anybody actually being thrown out of their homes for owning a pit bull, there is a very real problem for owners whose leases expire while the appeal is still pending. “Landlords are saying, ‘No dogs, no pit bulls,’” she says. “That is happening.” Other observers have pointed out that condominium associations are growing fearful as well.
Maryland Is a First
This is the first time a state body has made such a sweeping ruling about a breed. Some local jurisdictions across the country, such as Miami and Denver, have banned pit bulls, as have some European countries. “But the pit bull bans aren’t really helping,” Meinzer says. Instead what they’ve done is increase costs for taxpayers, based on having to litigate and defend the laws as well as enforcing them and sheltering surrendered or seized dogs.
Meinzer says the only other similar statewide action she knows of was in Ohio, where the state legislature declared that all pit bulls are dangerous. “You can have one there,” she explains, “but you have to do certain things, like muzzle the dog, carry a certain type of insurance, etc. But that law was repealed this year, and now the issue of dangerousness is back to specific circumstances.”
Task Force Pushes Legislative Solutions
She and the task force would like to see Maryland return to strict liability laws applying to all dog owners, regardless of breed, which would take into account factors such as whether the attack occurred on private property or happened in defense of the dog’s owner or offspring, whether the victim of the attack was trespassing, and whether the dog was in pain or was provoked.
Meinzer says a ruling on the motion to reconsider is expected in August. She’s hopeful that the appeals court will either reverse itself or stay its opinion while the General Assembly considers a law, but she acknowledges anything could happen. “It’s anybody’s guess,” she observes.
If you own a pit bull or a pit mix and are worried about your liability or your lease, you can learn more about some issues commonly involved and contact a lawyer who can answer your questions here on Lawyers.com.