On April 24, 2012, a Maryland Appeals court declared pit bulls to be inherently dangerous, imposing strict liability on owners whose pit bulls attack a person. The ruling also holds landlords responsible for allowing dangerous dogs on their property. This decision lays the groundwork for the first statewide restriction aimed at pit bulls.
If a dog attack involves a pit bull, plaintiffs in Maryland will no longer have to prove that the dog was a known danger. The opinion, written by Judge Dale Cathell, states: “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.” Prior to this opinion, a Maryland dog owner would only be liable if they had knowledge that their pet had demonstrated vicious behavior in the past.
Serious Injuries Caused by Pit Bull Attacks
According to the court opinion, over the last 13 years, there were at least seven cases in Maryland involving a pit bull or mixed-breed pit bull that caused serious injury or death. For this reason, the court took a hard approach, imposing strict liability on pit bull owners and landlords. Under the theory of strict liability, a person is presumed negligent if a pit bull under his or her control causes injury to a person.
The case originated when a 10 year old boy’s parents sued for injuries he sustained in 2007 when he was mauled by a pit bull. Following the attack, the boy spent 17 days in the hospital, required several surgeries and had to spend a year in rehabilitation. Initially, the trial court found that there was insufficient evidence to show that the pit bull’s owner knew that the dog was vicious. The trial court’s decision was reversed on appeal.
Strict Liability for Owners and Landlords
This decision will make it easier for plaintiffs who are injured in pit bull attacks to receive damages from the dog’s owners, as well as from the owner’s landlord. Under the new Maryland law, a person attacked by a dog would first have to prove that the dog was a pit bull or a pit bull mix. Then, the person would have to prove that the defendant was aware that the dog was a pit bull or mixed with pit bull and that he or she had control over the dog’s presence.
The court’s decision imposes liability on landlords because the landlord will have the ability to prohibit the dogs from the premises. Failure to do so will subject them to strict liability. This decision puts Maryland pit bull owners in a difficult situation, especially if they are renters. Because landlords will also be strictly liable for injuries caused by pit bulls on their premises, they will be unlikely to rent their property out to pit bull owners.
Setting Groundwork for Statewide Bans
This decision comes on a wave of bad press for pit bulls. Advocates are working to distance the animal from their reputation as an inherently dangerous breed, but their efforts are often being outdone by similar court cases and breed-specific legislation that targets pit bulls. Advocates argue that the problem is the way that many pit bulls are raised, not the breed itself. They argue that individual dogs have different temperaments, and many pit bulls are loyal and affectionate. Following this court decision, an animal shelter in Frederick County, Maryland has currently suspended adoptions for pit bulls and mixes in their care while they assess the situation and the risk of adopting out the breed. While this decision marks the first statewide legal decision against pit bulls, it may set the groundwork for other states to adopt similar measures.
The team at Lederer & Nojima, LLP handles a number of canine injury cases. Each dedicated dog bite attorney in Los Angeles is abreast of the latest relevant legislative actions.