Simmons Backs the Wrong Dog

bewareofdog

In 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that pit bulls are an inherently dangerous breed. In order to avoid massive emails on this topic, I will not wade into that question. (Write Judge Judy instead; she thinks they’re dangerous.)

The Court’s decision made it so that it is not necessary to show negligence by a pit bull’s owner in order to collect damages for a pit bull dog bite. Pit bull owners worry that the Court’s decision will lead landlords to bar pit bulls and that animal shelters will euthanize them –both of which are possible. In short, they demand an end to pit bull discrimination.

The issue has become a serious problem. The General Assembly wants to eliminate the single breed focus but still protect the public from dog bites. However, it has been unable to resolve this problem due to Del. Luiz Simmons’ recalcitrance.

Simmons wants a one bite rule. Essentially, unless an owner had knowledge that a dog bit people through previous experience, the owner could not be held liable for a dog’s first bite. The one bite rule would even protect owners who negligently fail to obey leash laws.

As a result of Simmons’ demands, the bill died in the last session of the General Assembly, as reported by the Baltimore Sun:

At issue is an amendment adopted by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which [Sen. Brian] Frosh chairs, on Thursday night. Simmons said the amendment “killed” the bill. Frosh said Simmons is overreacting.

“He told me he’s going to kill the Senate bill as a result,” Frosh said. “I think he’s making a mistake. I think we’re very close to passing a good piece of legislation.” . . .

Simmons charged Friday that an amendment added to the bill . . .  — proposed by Sen. Robert A. Zirkin and adopted 7-4 — would expose hundreds of thousands of owners of other breeds of dog to substantially the same strict liability standard as the court applied to pit bulls. . . .

Frosh said he fought hard to defeat the amendment — an account confirmed by several members. While Frosh said he doesn’t like the amendment, which requires the owner to provide “clear and convincing” proof there was no reason to suspect a dog would bite, he said it’s a long way from strict liability — an almost automatic legal presumption that the owner is responsible.

Simmons preferred to kill the bill rather than let it go to a conference committee to work out the differences, stating that Sen. Brian Frosh “reneged” and is “incompetent” if he couldn’t defeat the amendment.

Frosh, now a candidate for Maryland Attorney General, and Simmons have reconciled and the bill has been reintroduced this year without the amendment that Simmons intensely dislikes. However, Sen. Zirkin has introduced a bill with the stricter language. Zirkin feels strongly but on the other side.

Zirkin’s explained his views in the Washington Post:

Zirkin told his colleagues that everyone agrees the law shouldn’t discriminate against pit bulls. He said the only remaining question is whether owners should be held liable when their dogs have no prior history of violence. And Zirkin considers it unjust to make a victim pay for medical bills if that person didn’t provoke the attack.

Tony Solesky, the father of the boy who was mauled, and their attorney, Kevin Dunne, also spoke against Frosh’s bill.

“It’s not a compromise — it is a surrender,” Dunne said. “The victims will lose.”

In other states with “strict liability” laws, insurance companies often cover the dog owners’ expenses.

Zirkin is right. Owners should be held responsible for the actions of their dog unless they can prove convincingly that the dog was provoked. The effect of an injury is the same whether it’s the first or second bite. Either way, medical bills should absolutely be covered. The number of previous bites seem more relevant to the question of punitive damages.

As the Gazette has reported, Del. Simmons’ thinks that demands for stricter liability are rooted in “histrionics:”

In its November report, titled “Dog Bites in Maryland and Other States: Data, Insurance Coverage and Liability,” the Department of Legislative Services found that since 2005, only one death in Maryland was attributed to a dog bite.

Compared to other states, Maryland has an average number of dog bite injuries, the report said, noting that very few states had data available.

Among injuries from external causes — such as from motor vehicle accidents, firearms, water, fire, machinery, falls, medications and more — dogs bites accounted for about 1 percent. Maryland logged about 465,000 externally caused injuries in 2010, of which about 4,800 were dog bites.

“The facts are an antidote to the epidemic of disinformation and factoids about dog bites and the histrionics that have accompanied it,” Simmons said in a statement provided to The Gazette.

My guess is that means around 4,800 more people per year who disagree strongly with Del. Simmons. While I imagine most injuries are relatively mild, some aren’t. The anecdotal cases derided by Simmons include some very serious ones.

Supporters of a loose standard claim that this is a boondoggle for trial lawyers. But the tighter standard provides a much stronger incentive for owners to take responsibility for their dogs. And responsibility is the key word here. Should the responsibility rest with the dog owner or the injured person?

Seems obvious to me.

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