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Dog-Bite Bill Aims for Liability Compromise

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A new Senate bill tries to hold dog owners liable when their dogs bite “innocent victims,” but without being too strict — owners who can prove they didn’t know the dog was dangerous won’t be held responsible.

This marks the General Assembly’s third consecutive attempt to revise its dog-bite policy. It aims for a compromise between the strict liability bills favored by the Senate and more lenient ones approved by the House. Sen. Brian Frosh and Del. Luiz Simmons have introduced parallel versions.

However, Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who litigates dog-bite cases on behalf of plaintiffs, argued in a committee hearing Thursday that the new bill leaves the burden solely on victims.

He said a victim would need to prove a dog showed prior signs of violence. This amounts to a “one free bite” policy, Zirkin said.

As a counter to Frosh’s bill, Zirkin has introduced Senate Bill 286, which closely resembles the version the House of Delegates rejected last year.

The debate stems from the Solesky lawsuit case, in which a 10-year-old boy in East Towson was mauled by a neighbor’s dog. In 2012, the Court of Appeals ruled that dog owners and landlords could be held strictly liable even if they didn’t know a dog was dangerous. The court also declared pit bulls “inherently dangerous.”

The General Assembly has been trying to repeal the decision since 2012.

Zirkin told his colleagues that everyone agrees the law shouldn’t discriminate against pit bulls. He said the only remaining question is whether owners should be held liable when their dogs have no prior history of violence. And Zirkin considers it unjust to make a victim pay for medical bills if that person didn’t provoke the attack.

Tony Solesky, the father of the boy who was mauled, and their attorney, Kevin Dunne, also spoke against Frosh’s bill.

“It’s not a compromise — it is a surrender,” Dunne said. “The victims will lose.”

In other states with “strict liability” laws, insurance companies often cover the dog owners’ expenses.

Several animal advocates said they too wanted dog owners to be held responsible, but they urged Zirkin and the others to pass Frosh’s bill, as it seems to have the best chance of passing in the House.

Jen Swanson, executive director of the Baltimore Humane Society, said Frosh’s bill leaves room for juries to rule in victims’ favor.

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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