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Maryland Personal Injury Attorney | Theories of Liability for Dog Bites in Maryland

Author: Portner & Shure

Under Maryland common law, an owner or keeper of a dog may be responsible for an injurious act of the dog under two alternate theories of liability: (1) negligence; or (2) strict liability arising from the defendant's knowledge of the dog's propensity to cause harm. Under a negligence claim, an owner of an animal will be liable for damage proximately caused by the animal if the owner exercised ineffective control of the animal in a situation where it would reasonably be expected that injury could occur. In determining the necessary degree of control, the past behavior of the animal and the foreseeability of the injuries should be considered.

Under common law, absent a showing of negligence, a defendant is not liable for an injury caused by a dog unless, at the time of the attack, the defendant knew or had reason to know of the dog's vicious tendencies or propensities (scienter). Though commonly referred to as the "one bite rule," a plaintiff seeking to recover damages for injuries caused by a dog is not required to prove that the dog actually bit someone prior to the attack on the plaintiff. The defendant's knowledge of the dog's vicious propensity "need only be such as to put him on his guard, and to require him an ordinarily prudent person to anticipate the act or conduct of the dog resulting in the injury for which the owner is sought to be held liable." On a showing of knowledge of the dog's vicious propensity, a plaintiff may recover under the common law on the basis of strict liability./p>

Early last month, Governor Martin O'Malley signed legislation that lifted the "inherently dangerous" legal stigma from the pit bulls of Maryland. The measure negated the 2012 Court of Appeals ruling in Tracey v. Solesky that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous" and must be held to a stricter liability standard than other dogs. The Court acknowledged that it was imposing "breed-specific liability standards," stating:

"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."

On August 21, 2012, the court reconsidered its decision and limited its application to purebred pit bulls. Animal advocates across the nation objected to the court's delicious to treat pit bulls differently.

The legislation passed by the legislature this year - after failed attempts to reach an agreement between the Senate and House in 2012 and 2013 - applies the same legal standard to all dogs. It makes all dogs, regardless of breed, subject to the same liability standard. It shifts the burden of proof to the owner to show that there was no previous reason to believe a dog was dangerous. Previously, the burden had been on the bite victim to prove that the owner knew or should have known that the dog had vicious or dangerous propensities. The legislation also makes it more difficult for victims of pit bull attacks to sue landlords. The court decision in Tracey v. Solesky had opened the door to such suits, and animal advocates contended that people were being forced to choose between losing their homes and giving up their pets.

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