A bill backed by Montgomery legislators may help resolve whether certain breeds of dogs carry greater liability for their owners.
The state has been trying to figure out how to handle dog attacks since a 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals decision. The court ruled that the owners of dogs or the property where they live are liable for injuries sustained if a dog bites someone. There has to be proof that the owner knew that the dog was a pit bull or a mixed-breed pit bull.
The court decision was later altered to apply only to purebred pit bulls.
The decision drew criticism from legislators, dog lovers and animal rights groups. Since then, the General Assembly has tried to create a new standard.
Now, Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda and Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville hope to break through the impasse.
Their bill, cross-filed in the House and Senate, increase protections for victims of dog bites by not requiring them to prove in civil actions that an owner knew or should have known the dog was dangerous, Simmons said.
The bills also let an owner call witnesses to testify that the dog was friendly and not dangerous and that the incident was isolated or unpredictable.
“Every case becomes a jury question [to figure out],” Simmons said.
Frosh said he believes the bill is fair to all parties connected to a dog bite and “goes straight down the middle” between victims and dog owners.
Dog bites make up about 0.2 percent of total injuries from external causes — including vehicle crashes, slipping and falling, and other reasons — that required hospitalization, Simmons said.
Between 2005 and 2011, there was one death in Maryland from a dog bite, compared with about 5,000 deaths from motor vehicles, he said.
A hearing on the Senate version of the bill is scheduled for Thursday in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Simmons said he hopes the bill will “move the ball forward” on the dog issue and break through the impasse the issue has created.
Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring would nullify the Court of Appeals pit bull ruling by declaring that no dog can be determined to be potentially dangerous based solely on its breed, type or heritage.
House Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D-Dist. 17) of Gaithersburg and Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Dist. 19) of Silver Spring are among the co-sponsors.
The bill would prohibit counties, municipalities or property owners from refusing to let residents own certain types or breeds of dogs.
Hixson, a long-time dog lover who said her granddaughter owns a pit bull, said she believes that supporters “have a shot” at getting the bill passed this year.
“These dogs aren’t born that way. They’re trained,” she said.
A number of states have laws that say prohibitions on dogs can’t be breed-specific, she said.
Simmons said Hixson’s bill is well-intentioned, but it was essentially tried several years ago when the issue first came up and did not have enough support in the Senate.
The Senate hasn’t given any indication it’s willing to consider a bill that would repeal the court’s decision, Simmons said.
Hixson said she believes her bill differs from previous legislation in that it would apply statewide rather than leave the issue up to each county.
She said she’s talked with Simmons and Frosh about potentially adding parts of her legislation to their bill.