Md. lawmakers will try, try again next year for dog bite compromise

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Photo - happy pit bull
happy pit bull
Local,Maryland,Andy Brownfield

Pit bull owners are still in the lurch after a last-minute compromise to remove a stigma attached by Maryland's highest court fell apart in the waning minutes of the 2013 legislative session, but lawmakers have pledged to work over the summer and come back with proposals next January.

The bill touted early this year as a compromise would have changed what dog owners have to prove in court if they are sued when their animal bites somebody. A January

2012 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals held that pit bulls were inherently dangerous and that their owners had to prove otherwise in legal battles. In all other dog bite cases, the victim has to prove that the dog is dangerous.

The issue is proving particularly difficult to resolve: A special session last year, a task force and a full session this year have seen lawmakers unable to come to agreement over who should be held responsible when dogs bite.

This year's bill would have required all dog owners to prove their dogs weren't dangerous, instead of only pit bull owners. However, the state Senate wanted to hold dog owners to a higher level of accountability, and a House contingent wanted a lesser burden of proof. That impasse killed the bill shortly before the legislature adjourned for the year at midnight on Monday.

"I feel relieved that the strict liability didn't get through, but I don't feel good about what happened, because I consider it a serious question for everybody," said Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery County, adding he felt like all the work he did last summer to reach the so-called compromise went down the drain.

Simmons said defendants in no other personal injury case were held to the same standard to which the Senate wanted to hold dog owners -- victims in car crashes or slip-and-fall cases have to prove the other automobile driver or the business owner with a wet floor was acting negligently.

He said he planned to work through the summer studying what other states do, with the goal of penning two bills for next year. One would address the burden of proof for dog owners. The other would reduce a landlord's liability if a tenant's dog mauled someone -- which animal rights advocates say is causing many pit bull owners to have to choose between their pets and their homes.

Simmons' fellow Montgomery County Democratic Del. Kathleen Dumais holds him responsible for getting the bill killed. Dumais was on the conference committee that tried to reconcile the House and Senate. Their bill to hold owners to a higher standard if the victim was less than 13 years old but to a lower standard if the victim was older, was killed at the last minute.

"Del. Simmons and the insurance industry should be ashamed of themselves," Dumais said.

"I will make it a priority that it gets done [next year], and I think it's a tragedy and a travesty that it wasn't."

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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Andy Brownfield

Examiner Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner