ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland’s Senate advanced a measure on Wednesday that would hold dog owners liable for bites, but protect those who can prove they didn’t know their dog was dangerous.
The bill, which could get a vote in the Senate as early as Friday, is a compromise to address a 2012 ruling by the state’s highest court. The Senate and the House of Delegates have been in a stalemate over the issue for nearly two years.
It would apply to all dogs and hold owners liable when dogs bite people, not just pit bulls. It is a response to a Court of Appeals ruling that made pit bull owners and landlords strictly liable for bites without previous evidence of a dog being dangerous.
Pet owners and animal rights activists objected, saying it focused on a single breed. Critics also say the ruling has made it harder for homeless pit bulls to be adopted, and the strict liability standard on landlords has forced some pet owners to choose between their pets and their homes.
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, said the measure shifts the burden of proof to the dog owner, rather than the victim. He described the bill as fair to victims, pet owners and landlords.
“It will move the ball toward justice for each class, and I think it’s an important step to take,” said Frosh, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
But some senators said the measure amounted to caving in to bad policy out of political expedience to craft a bill that could pass the House of Delegates. The Legislature failed to pass a bill addressing the court ruling last year. Lawmakers also came up short in a 2012 special session, which had been called primarily to address gambling expansion in the state.
“We are giving in to the House of Delegates,” Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, said. “I think we should do what we know is right.”
Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, offered an amendment to keep greater liability on dog owners. He described the measure as written as preserving a “one-bite rule” that essentially allows a dog to bite someone once without owner responsibility.
“We can protect the landlords. We can protect the breed neutrality — which should be the law — and we can protect victims, blameless innocent often children victims,” said Zirkin, who litigates dog-bite cases on behalf of plaintiffs.
The amendment failed 22-25.
The Senate passed another amendment offered by Zirkin that would maintain greater liability for an owner whose dog attacks someone while running loose.
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