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Maryland pit bull task force wrangles over liability

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Local,Maryland,Matt Connolly

ANNAPOLIS - Maryland lawmakers worked Thursday to create legislation responding to a state court ruling that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous" but struggled over the issue of liability.

The task force was created after the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that property owners and landlords can be held liable for pit bull attacks. The case centered on Dominic Solesky, then 10 years old, who was almost killed by a neighbor's pit bull in 2007.

With six of its 10 members present, the group discussed the differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill to remove breed specificity from dog attack liability. The task force will meet again before the next session begins in January, or during its first week.

"I don't think we yet have a formulation that's acceptable to a majority of the task force," said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery County and the group's co-chairman. "That's what we obviously want to try and achieve so we can get something passed smoothly in the regular session."

The General Assembly couldn't reach a compromise on the dog liability bill during a special session in August. The Senate's version held dog owners liable for a bite unless the animal was provoked, while the House version used such strict liability only in cases where the dog was "at large" or loose.

"If you look at the Solesky case, it dealt with dogs running at large, and it dealt with serious bodily injury or death," Del. Benjamin Kramer, D-Montgomery County, said at the meeting. "Why don't we take a measured approach?"

Animal rights and pet owner advocates are eager for a resolution. Adrianne Lefkowitz, president of the Maryland Dog Federation, said more landlords and homeowners' associations are banning pit bulls due to the court ruling, forcing owners to move or give up their pets.

"They're being forced to decide whether to leave their home or surrender their dog to a shelter," Lefkowitz said. "That dog is likely to be euthanized. It's horrible."

The task force is particularly struggling over the liability in a scenario where a previously nonviolent dog bites without being intentionally provoked.

"Who bears the loss?" Frosh said. "In that situation, nobody's negligent."

Kramer said that the very concept of provocation can be problematic because it forces courts to rule based on what a dog may have been thinking. "There are courts that have said, 'We're not going to look at this issue from a human perspective -- we have to look at this from the animal's perspective.' "

Despite the slow start, Lefkowitz left the meeting optimistic that the task force could come to an agreement.

"Every time they meet is a positive," she said. "They know the general direction to go, but the devil's in the small details."

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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