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Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. is resurrecting a bill from August’s special session that would hold dog owners strictly liable if their pets attack someone while running loose, whether or not the dogs have a history of vicious behavior.
Smigiel (R-Dist. 36) of Chesapeake City said his bill is the only proposal on the table that will prevent bites from occurring in the first place.
“You pass this bill, then you give the incentive to the owner,” Smigiel said. “You fix the hole in the fence, or you put your dog on the leash.”
A bill filed by Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase and Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville that would not hold dog owners strictly liable has been heard in both House and Senate committees, but has not yet been brought up for a vote in either.
Both bills are breed-neutral, meaning they do not single out one breed as being particularly dangerous.
The new bills come nearly a year after the Maryland Court of Appeals decision in the Tracey v. Solesky case, which held that pit bulls are inherently dangerous and that landlords should be held liable if they house a dog on their property that they knew or should have known was vicious. The case stemmed from an incident in which a pit bull mauled a 10-year-old boy in Baltimore County.
The decision panicked the owners of pit bulls, or pit bull-type dogs, and landlords who would be financially responsible if the dogs attacked someone. Advocates told stories of families giving up their dogs to shelters or being kicked out of their homes because they owned a pit bull.
Smigiel’s bill passed the House unanimously in August, but the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, chaired by Frosh, failed to take it up during the short session.
“We’re certainly going to address this issue,” Frosh said. “But the House bill is a non-starter, I think.”
Frosh called Smigiel’s bill a “hodgepodge of concepts,” because it returns attacks by contained dogs to the common law standard that applied before the Tracey case, which some call a “one free bite” rule.
“I’m not sure where exactly this is going, but I don’t think Del. Smigiel’s bill is the way to go,” Frosh said.
The senator’s bill shifts the burden of proof from the victim, who prior to the Solesky decision would have had to prove that the owner should have known about the dog’s propensity for viciousness.
The burden would fall to the owners to prove that they had no way of knowing that the dog was disposed to attack someone. Smigiel is a co-sponsor of Frosh’s bill, but said he believes his is the better bill and that the Senate will pass it if given the opportunity.
Frosh calls his measure a “compromise bill,” saying that it protects both victims and dog owners.
Under both bills introduced this session, landlords and others with the dog under their care or control would be held liable only if they knew the dog had vicious tendencies.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Dist. 27A) of Upper Marlboro said he was unsure when the legislation will be ready for a committee vote, but he would like the issue addressed sooner rather than later. His committee faces other important issues, like the death penalty repeal and a slew of gun bills, before the session ends.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis said he hopes the committees will not leave the issue unresolved this session.
“The expectation is that the best and brightest lawyers in the state can come up with the best solution for dog owners in the state,” Busch said.