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Maryland Legislature Considers Changing Dog Bite Law

Posted on: March 11, 2014

On February 28, 2014, the Maryland Senate unanimously passed a bill that would change Maryland dog bite law. The bill represents a compromise effort between the Senate, which has been in favor of passing strict liability for dog bites, and the General Assembly, which has been opposed to strict liability. Strict liability means that the owner of the dog must pay for any personal injury damage it causes, regardless of whether they acted negligently.

Maryland Dog Bite Law

In 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a decision holding that pit bulls were an inherently dangerous breed, and that, under Maryland dog bite law, there is strict liability not just for pit bull owners, but for their landlords as well. Since the Court of Appeals’ decision, there have been reports of pit bull owners giving up their pets and of landlords evicting tenants who have pit bulls. Charitable organizations like the Humane Society have also criticized the decision.

For breeds other than pit bulls, Maryland dog bite law looks to negligence. A dog owner can be found negligent (and thus responsible for a dog bite injury) if they knew or should have known that their dog was dangerous. In determining whether they knew the dog was dangerous, Maryland courts frequently look to the “one bite rule,” which means that if a dog has bitten before, the owner should have known that the dog was dangerous and is then responsible for subsequent bites. Other circumstances can also be used to support a claim of negligence, such as if the dog owner was disobeying a local leash ordinance.

How Would Maryland Senate Bill 247 Change Maryland Dog Bite Law?

The current Bill, S.B. 247, would create a rebuttable presumption that, if a dog bites a person, the owner should have known the dog was dangerous. This is important, because it would be a significant change from the current one bite rule. A jury would then decide if the owner had presented sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption. This bill marks the third attempt to change Maryland dog bite law in recent years. The two previous attempts ended in a stalemate between the Senate and the General Assembly.

Proponents of the current bill believe that, because it offers a uniform policy that applies to all dog breeds, it would more effectively help those injured by dog bites. Groups like the Humane Society argue that singling out a particular breed is wrong, because there are indicators other than a dog’s breed which can better predict whether it will bite, such as whether a dog is spayed or neutered, whether a dog has been socialized, or whether the dog has been isolated and chained.

Justin Katz is a personal injury lawyer who represents injury victims in Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC
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