ANNAPOLIS – In a unanimous vote Friday, the Maryland Senate passed legislation that would hold owners of all dog breeds liable for bites, but allow owners to challenge that liability in court and let a jury decide.
The bill has been the subject of lengthy debate. In what lawmakers called a “compromise” between the House and the Senate, the measure holds the owner liable if their dog attacks someone, but the owner also has a right to offer a defense to a court jury. The measure states that evidence that the dog caused an injury or death creates the rebuttable presumption of whether the owner knew, or should have known, that the dog had dangerous propensities.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, voted for the bill despite earlier, strident opposition. “I think it is a much better compromise,” Zirkin said.
Zirkin had publicly opposed prior versions of the measure, stating that it did not provide adequate protection for dog-bite victims. In prior interviews, Zirkin said that he wanted to make sure the right bill passed and that he would not relent. “I don’t care if I am the only one left standing.” Zirkin said early February.
Lawmakers have tangled over similar measures in the wake of a 2012 Maryland court ruling that pit bulls are inherently dangerous.
The bill is next headed to the House of Delegates, where Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, said Friday that he would support the measure.
Simmons said that there were parts of the initial bill that both the House and the Senate did not like, but he and Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, worked together on a compromise.
Simmons said the matter of “strict liability” was one of issues from the bill that needed compromise because no other area of law places strict liability on the owner, including automobile accidents.
He also said that the widely debated “one free bite rule” is not applicable under the measure. The measure passed Friday does not require proof that a dog has previously bitten someone. Instead, it requires that a dog has shown a past propensity for violence, such as aggressive behavior.
“I can live with it.” Simmons said of the amended measure passed by the Senate. “I am going to support the bill that comes over.”
Simmons said that he doesn’t have a problem with the amendments, but thought it “unwise” for the Senate to add amendments, because it undermines the process and may complicate passage in the House.
“If we amend it, it isn’t a compromise,” Simmons said he previously told House members on the subject of possible amendments. He said that now, because the Senate bill passed with amendments, this may “open the floodgates to everyone that has amendments.”