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Senate, House reach compromise on pit bull issue

Key members of the Maryland Senate and House have reached a compromise on how to undo a Court of Appeals ruling last year that labeled pit bulls as an inherently dangerous breed.

Identical bills have been introduced in both chambers to deal with the issue of who is liable when a dog bites a person, reflecting an agreement that eluded lawmakers during a special session last August.

Sen. Brian Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the legislation would apply to all dogs, not just pit bulls, overruling the court's breed-specific decision. It would also eliminate what is known to some as the "one bite" doctrine under which a dog owner can be excused from liability if the pet has not bitten somebody else previously.

"The burden is shifted from the victim to know the propensity of the dog to bite or be dangerous," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It's fair to victims, it's fair to landlords, it's fair to pet owners."

Frosh and his House counterpart, Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., promised quick action on the emergency bill, which would take effect upon its signature by the governor if passed by a supermajority in both houses. Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, said his panel will hold a hearing Jan. 31.

One of the concerns raised by the court decision is that it held landlords liable for injuries caused when a tenant's pit bull bit somebody. Animal advocates have expressed concerns that landlords would require tenants to give up their pets in order to keep their housing.

The bill returns the law on pit bulls to where it stood before the court decision, making it more difficult to win a case against a landlord. A plaintiff would have to show that the landlord -- or housing or condominium association -- knew or should have know that the dog was dangerous.

At the same time, the measure would make it easier for victims to prove a case against an owner in all dog attack cases, regardless of breed, than it was before the court decision.

Frosh said the issues that divided the Senate and House last year were worked out in talks between himself and Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat who sits on the committee that will handle the legislation in the House.

Simmons said the House and Senate divided last year over the question of whether to apply a "strict liability" standard under which the dog owner would in many cases be automatically responsible for any injury caused by the pet. He said the Senate agreed to drop strict liability under the compromise, which provides that an owner could still call in witnesses to testify that the dog had not previously shown any signs of aggression.

A strict liability standard would have had unintended consequences, Simmons said. "It would have caused insurance policies for homeowners to spike in ways that couldn't be predicted," he said.

Owners would still retain all the previous common law defenses that existed before the decision, including trespassing and provocation, Simmons said.

The compromise was endorsed by representatives of landlords and animal advocates.

"Something needed to be done because we've been the bad guys since the ruling," said Michael Gisriel, a lobbyist for the Maryland Multi-Family Housing Association.

Tami Santelli, Maryland director of the Humane Society  said the compromise addresses the organization's concerns that the decision was forcing Marylanders to choose between their dogs and their homes.

"Shelters are seeing more pit bulls come in," she said. "It's been harder to adopt pit bulls out."





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