- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Advocates and dog owners have waited nearly a year for a solution to address a problem created by a Maryland Court of Appeals case. Now, two bills to address the problem are on a collision course between the chambers of the Maryland General Assembly.
“If the compromise fails, it is the singular responsibility of Brian Frosh’s fecklessness,” Del. Luiz Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville, said of Sen. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Chevy Chase.
The two Montgomery lawmakers seemed, early in the session, to have worked out a compromise deal that would have ended the uncertainty of some dog owners in who should pay and when following dog attacks.
But recent changes to the Senate’s version of the bill, which passed unanimously Thursday, have led Simmons to accuse Frosh of “welching” on the deal they struck between the House and Senate positions, claiming there’s little hope of reconciling the differences between the chambers.
The compromise bill was written to address issues stemming from an April Maryland Court of Appeals decision, in which a dog owner and the owner’s landlord were held financially liable after a child was attacked by a pit bull. Advocates said the decision set a dangerous precedent by calling pit bulls “inherently dangerous” and holding property owners liable for the actions of their renters’ dogs.
Sponsors called a proposal worked out early in the session a “compromise” bill, seeing it as the only way to reconcile the differences between the approach taken by the House and that of the Senate in an August special session. Both proposals in the special session died when the chambers could not agree on a bill.
The current session’s compromise bill was worked out between Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, and Simmons, among others. The proposal would give dog-bite victims the right to take the dog’s owner to court and would put the onus on the dog owner to prove that he or she could not have known the dog’s violent tendencies.
The House unanimously passed its version of the bill Feb. 21.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, however, last week amended the compromise bill to include the phrase “clear and convincing,” setting a higher standard for owners to prove that they had no knowledge of their dog’s propensity for viciousness.
“It’s the functional equivalent of strict liability,” making it nearly impossible for owners to prove they didn’t know about their dog’s mischievous tendencies, Simmons said.
Although Frosh voted against the change, Simmons accused him of effectively killing the bill by allowing the amendment in his committee, and said Frosh “did not lift a finger” to keep the bill in its original form.
Simmons said the differences in the bill could be worked out, but he added that House members already had compromised enough on the initial bill.
While the changes mean more delays for dog owners, advocates say they’re still looking forward to a solution.
“We remain confident that they’re going to work out their differences,” said Adrianne Lefkowitz, executive director of the Maryland Dog Federation. “I think everybody knows the stakes here. The legislators are certainly aware.”
The two bills will have to go back to the House committee and the House floor for a vote before a conference committee can be appointed to work out the differences and make it back in time for approval by both chambers before the session ends April 9. If no compromise is reached, the court’s decision will stand. Advocates say that could lead to more tenants being evicted because of their dogs and more pit bulls in shelters throughout the state.