ANNAPOLIS – Animal-welfare advocates, attorneys and lawmakers debated Thursday whether pit bulls and their owners should be treated differently under Maryland law if this specific breed of dog is involved in an attack.
Legislation pending in the General Assembly could reverse a 2012 decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals, which found the pit bull breed is inherently dangerous after a 10-year-old Towson boy was mauled by a pit bull and seriously injured.
That boy’s father, Tony Solesky, testified Thursday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in opposition of any bill that would limit the liability of pit bull owners or their landlords. He called the notion of breed discrimination “ridiculous” and said that he opposed this and any bill that did not address the issues in the court case.
Solesky said that 46 people have been killed by pit bulls since April 2012 and questioned the fairness of any bill that would not hold property owners responsible.
“In Baltimore City, 52 percent of the homes are renters,” Solesky said, “Anyone that says it is fair…if I own a pit bull, and I live next door to a renter, they’re going to have recourse because I’m a homeowner, and I’m not going to have recourse because they’re a renter.” He voiced concerns that many people in Baltimore do not have insurance.
Many of the witnesses, and several lawmakers, gave emotional statements during the two-hour hearing.
In a manner that resembled a prosecutor making opening remarks Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, appealed to the emotions of committee members, arguing that a bill supported by the majority of the committee would not adequately protect victims of dog bites.
Zirkin said that it is important to pass the right bill so that dog-bite victims are not responsible for paying for damages that are no fault of their own.
“We make this thing understandable so that a blameless victim gets compensated. So that Nationwide and State Farm [insurance companies] and all the rest don’t get to walk away from their responsibilities by saying ‘it never happened before.’” Zirkin said.
As an alternative, Zirkin has introduced his own measure, which would address some of the issues that he said were lacking in the other proposed legislation.
Zirkin said he does not believe his bill is a flawless measure, but said he will not endorse a bill that does not protect ‘blameless victims’ – that is, dog-bite victims who were not trespassing or doing anything to provoke a dog.
The clause that protects the dog owners by allowing no liability for the so-called ‘first bite,’ is unsettling for Zirkin and some other witnesses.
At several points throughout the hearing Zirkin expressed his concerns about the ‘blameless victim’ going uncompensated based on a case where the dog had no prior history of aggression.
Despite the fact that it has been two years and legislators are under pressure to pass a bill, Zirkin says that he will not give in to a bill that he feels is “borderline immoral.”
“I don’t care if I am the only one left standing.” Zirkin said.
The failure to come to a resolution through courts or legislation has frustrated dog owners for two years.
“Everyone is telling us that we have to pass something,” said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil and Harford Counties. “I just don’t see that we can single out a single breed.”
“You were right then, you are right now.” Zirkin said.
“We have been on the right side of this,” he said, suggesting that perhaps the solution may be to change some of the language to make it more clear the conditions where liability applies.
Representatives from companies like USAA, Nationwide Insurance, and private citizens took the podium to express support of the bill. Many of those that stood in support of the majority’s bill acknowledged that the bill was not perfect, but called it a “compromise.”
One of the supporters of the bill was a victim of a dog attack.
Kathy Hiett, 66, of Glen Burnie, said she recently lost a finger in an attack by two large dogs. The violent act took place in December when Hiett, a piano teacher, walked her two Labradors through her neighborhood. The dogs, believed to be pit bulls, attacked her younger dog, she testified.
Heitt says that the owners of the dogs were never identified, and as a result she could not be compensated for her losses. Heitt said she is now responsible for the medical bills for both herself and her pets. Heitt added that she can not use her injured finger to play the piano, which affects her teaching work.