Friday, March 22, 2013

Pit Bull Paralysis in Annapolis

By Michael Stone

The Maryland legislature needs to focus on fixing the Court of Appeals’ poor judgment instead of fighting over small details of how it’s done.

Maryland used to be part of a dwindling minority of U.S. states that followed what is commonly referred to as “the one-bite rule”—a common-law rule adapted from English law that shields a dog owner from liability for the dog’s first bite. Most states follow a different rule, holding owners strictly liable to victims of their dog’s bites. In other words, the majority of the country requires owners pay to for the injuries caused by their dogs on their first bite, rather than give owners a free pass.

But in April 2012, the rule in Maryland changed. The Court of Appeals ruled that pit bulls were different than other dogs—they were “inherently dangerous” because of their “aggressive and vicious nature and [their] capability to inflict serious and sometimes fatal injuries.” The Court applied the new rule to “purebred” pit bulls, and held that owners of the dogs, and landlords of the property where the dogs were kept, were strictly liable for any pit bull bites.

This rule is inherently unfair because it makes liability dependent on the dog’s breed. First, there is significant disagreement as to what exactly a “pit bull” is. The ASPCA states a pit bull “can refer to just a couple of breeds or to as many as five—and all mixes of these breeds.” Additionally, the organization mentions several breeds commonly misidentified as pit bulls, including “the Boxer, the Presa Canario, the Cane Corso, the Dogo Argentino, the Tosa Inu, the Bullmastiff, the Dogue de Bordeaux, the Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog and the Olde English Bulldogge.” Given that the pit bull isn’t one particular breed, even DNA tests can fail to identify one.

Second, breed doesn’t necessarily correlate to the temperament of any particular dog. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), in a joint study with the CDC and Humane Society of the United States over 20 years, reported dog bites revealed that no one breed of dog was “inherently more dangerous than others.” The study even showed that “the most popular large breed dogs at any one time were consistently on the list of breeds that bit fatally.” In fact, the CDC recommends education as the most effective means of preventing dog bites. The same report states that breed-specific dog regulations result can actually “result in a false sense of accomplishment.” Such regulations fail to protect citizens because they overstate the source of dog bites, and understate effective prevention methods. This makes a rule singling out pit bulls not only unfair, but misguided.

The current rule exposes pit bull owners to serious consequences. It places the burden on renters to choose between their home and their pet, and inevitably means that some dogs will be killed for unfair and misguided policy. The Humane Society of the United States reports that the impact has already been felt:
[L]andlords have sent warning notices to renters with pit bull-type dogs, condominium associations and homeowner’s associations have considered changing their policies, local governments have scrambled to address liability at city dog parks and other public spaces, and animal shelters have braced for an influx of pit bull-type dogs.
On August 21, The Washington Post reported  “one 1,500 [unit] apartment complex in Baltimore had already ordered that pit bulls would have to be removed from the premises immediately.”

The state legislature has yet to remedy this problem. The House of Delegates passed a bill that would overturn the Court of Appeals ruling. According to The Baltimore Sun, the bill struck a balance between victims of dog bites and owners, making owners presumptively liable to victims for dog bites.  But the bill allowed the owners to avoid that liability by showing the dog had no history of dangerousness. It also removed the strict liability for landlords.

Reports indicate, however, that passage of the final bill is threatened by a dispute over how much proof is required to avoid liability. The House bill requires dog owners prove the dog has no history of dangerousness by a “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning owners must show that it is more likely than not their dog isn’t dangerous.

However the Senate bill would require dog owners to prove lack of dangerous history by the higher standard “clear and convincing evidence.” The Baltimore Sun reports  that Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons of Montgomery County argues that the Senate bill “expose[s] hundreds of thousands of owners of other breeds of dog to substantially the same strict liability standard as the court applied to pit bulls.”

The legislature must act to pass a law that fixes the Court of Appeal’s mistake. Breed specific laws are bad policy, especially those that single out dogs that are not an actual breed.

This is dog discrimination plain and simple.

Dog owners should not be forced to choose between their beloved pets or their homes. Both houses appear to understand this. To let a different standard of proof derail that fix, when the worst it does is place Maryland on par with the majority of the country, is dysfunctional.


  1. I was interested that CDC and other organizations are involved in this debate. It adds a lot of light to an emotional subject.

  2. It is amazing that such a clumsy law gets passed. I wonder how many dogs will not get adopted based on this law...

  3. I'm sure most have seen the internet meme about the evolution of dog blame in society. Many breeds have undergone such stereotyping, but unfortunately the pit bull is the victim of a well-meaning but over-reaching judiciary.