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Md. Senate Dog-Bite Bill Different From House

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File photo of a pit bull in a shelter. (Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

File photo of a pit bull in a shelter. (Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Maryland Senate and House are headed for a showdown on how to address a court ruling that designated pit bulls as an “inherently dangerous” breed.

The Senate rejected a change that would have made the bill similar to one already passed by the House of Delegates. The difference is over the burden of proof an owner would need to meet in court about whether there was reason to believe the dog was likely to bite someone.

The change appears to have created a hang-up to the bill’s passage — even after lawmakers from both houses said they had reached a compromise early in the session. A previous attempt to take up the matter in an August special session failed at the last minute.

Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, said he was confident the two sides would work out a deal.

“I’m sure that’s going to be accomplished this year,” Frosh said. “I don’t think it’s going to be very difficult.”

But Delegate Luiz Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat who worked on a compromise bill with Frosh, criticized the senator for not doing more to keep the original compromise measure intact.

“The bill is in serious trouble, because it’s not the compromise,” Simmons said.

The measure passed by the House makes it easier for dog owners to prove they had no reason to believe their animal was a danger. Under it, owners would need to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that they had no prior knowledge the dog was prone to biting. The Senate, however, requires dog owners to prove it by clear and convincing evidence, a higher standard.

The Senate shot down an amendment offered by Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, to conform the burden of proof to what is in the House bill. Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said the change would make it a little easier for victims to collect damages from insurance companies after a dog bite, and he noted most dog-bite victims are children.

“Clear and convincing evidence makes it just a little bit harder for the insurance companies to weasel out from paying that kid,” Zirkin said.

But Pipkin argued the Senate bill that received preliminary approval on Tuesday went too far.

“It’s pretty clear that if your dog bites somebody, you’re headed to court in one way, shape or form, and whether it’s Fluffy or whatever the idea is that you’ve got to show some kind of evidence that you didn’t expect this to happen, etc.,” Pipkin said. “But, you see, in today’s Senate it’s not good enough to legislate to bring everybody in and get accountability. We’ve got to legislate to the ultimate extreme.”

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore, noted concerns about pit bulls in his community

“In my community, we don’t have Fluffy, we have Brutus, and Brutus bites people real bad,” McFadden said.

Lawmakers are trying to address a Court of Appeals ruling last year that made pit bull owners and landlords strictly liable for bites without previous evidence of a dog being dangerous. The court’s decision brought an outcry from pet owners and animal rights activists who said it focused on a single breed and made it harder for homeless pit bulls to be adopted. Opponents also said the strict liability standard on landlords forced pet owners to choose between their pets and their homes.

The bill lawmakers are debating now removes the new strict liability standard on landlords. It also creates a presumption that all dog owners should know their pets presented a danger. An owner who becomes a defendant after a bite will have a chance in court to try to prove the dog was not dangerous.

The court ruling last year was made in the case of Dominic Solesky, who was badly injured in a pit bull attack in Baltimore County in 2007 when he was 10.

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(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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