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For Pit Bulls, No More Freebies

April 27, 2012
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In a little-noticed ruling, (link to pdf) the Maryland Court of Appeals has changed a long-standing “one free bite” rule regarding dog bite victims’ rights to receive compensation for their injuries:

We are modifying the Maryland common law of liability as it relates to attacks by pit bull and cross-bred pit bull dogs against humans. With the standard we establish today (which is to be applied in this case on remand), when an owner or a landlord is proven to have knowledge of the presence of a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull (as both the owner and landlord did in this case) or should have had such knowledge, a prima facie case is established. It is not necessary that the landlord (or the pit bull’s owner) have actual knowledge that the specific pit bull involved is dangerous. Because of its aggressive and vicious nature and its capability to inflict serious and sometimes fatal injuries, pit bulls and cross-bred pit bulls are inherently dangerous.

The decision, published April 26 in the case captioned Dorothy M. Tracey v. Anthony K. Solesky, sends the case back to the Circuit Court for retrial under the new standard. In the past, a bite victim would have to show that the person who had control of the dog knew the dog was vicious and failed to take adequate measures to prevent the bite. Proving that  usually required the victim to find evidence that the dog had bitten someone before—and that the defendant knew that.

The law now says: “When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous.” It applies not only to the dogs’ owners, but to any person who “had the right to control the pit bull’s presence”—i.e., the land lord.

This could have profound implications not just for slumlords, but also for animal shelters, rescue volunteers (and their landlords), animal hospitals and veterinarians.

(Hat Tip: Hayley Nethen)

UPDATE:  The Humane Society Weighs in

The Humane Society of the United States Responds to Maryland Court of Appeals’ Decision Regarding Pit Bull Dogs

(April 28, 2012) The Humane Society of the United States will work with Maryland dog advocates and members of the legislature to develop rational, science-based dangerous dog policies for the state after the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a decision fundamentally changing longstanding liability rules relating to pit bull and mixed pit bull dogs.

Betsy McFarland, vice president of The Humane Society of the United States’ companion animals department, issues the following statement:

“In addition to our general concerns about the issues with breed-specific public policies, we believe that the court overstepped its authority. The decision acknowledged it was ‘modifying the Maryland common law of liability.’ A seismic shift in Maryland law of this nature should be undertaken by the legislature, not judges. The legislature should conduct appropriate fact-finding and hearings, consider the available science, and make a measured, non-emotional decision on this important policy issue.

We encourage advocates to call their state legislators to respectfully voice their concerns, and urge them to work with advocates on legislation in the next session that provides rational, science-based dangerous dog policies for the state.

The Humane Society of the United States’ companion animals department is in communication with shelters and rescues, and will be looking for ways to support them as they consider the ramifications of this decision.”

For more information about pit bulls, go here.

Facts:

  • Renters who currently own a pit bull or pit bull mix should contact attorneys licensed in Maryland with any questions or concerns regarding their specific situations.
  • In general, a landlord cannot change a lease to ban pit bulls before the lease term expires. A lease is a contract, and under Maryland law the landlord may not change the terms of the lease without your consent for the remainder of the lease term. If your lease has an automatic renewal clause, the landlord must notify you of a rent increase or any other change with enough notice for you to decide whether you want to renew or not. If your lease does not automatically renew, you should be sure to thoroughly read the new lease you will sign for any prohibition against dogs that may constitute a pit bull.
  • Options for renters with pit bulls will likely begin to be more difficult to find. For tips for finding pet friendly rental properties, go here: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/animal_friendly_apartments.html.
  • In general, if a tenant breaches the terms of a lease agreement, a landlord may evict him or her. However, the landlord must go to court and obtain an eviction judgment first.  Also, state law requires the landlord to first give the tenant one month’s advance notice that he is ending the lease and the reason why. However, if the breach of lease involves tenant behavior that constitutes a danger to other people or property, the landlord must only give 14 days advance notice. Therefore, if a tenant with a pit bull or pit bull mix has a lease that is about to expire, he or she should review the new lease for any changes, as there may be a short time frame in which to make moving arrangements.
  • If a tenant does not have a written lease or does not know whether it’s in effect, he or she should be aware that a landlord is required to use a written lease if the tenancy is going to be for a year or longer, or if the landlord owns five or more rental units in the State.  If a lease is to last more than a year, it must be written to be enforceable. If you have an oral agreement you landlord must still give proper written notice before any changes to the terms of an oral lease.

Update (II):

Reader Amanda Fitzgerald shares this alternate view of pit bull life.

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