Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Maryland adopts new bill in reaction to Tracey v. Solesky

Two years ago I reported (here) that the Court of Appeals of Maryland issued an opinion in a case called Tracey v. Solesky holding that the owner of a pit bull could be held strictly liable for the injuries caused by the dog.

Soon thereafter pit bull owners and their advocates persuaded state legislators to convene a task force aimed at overriding the decision of the Court of Appeals.  See here.

However, after a very long process, the attempt by the legislature to enact a statute to override the holding in Tracey appeared to have failed. Both the House and the Senate approved statutes but they did not agree on the approach to use to deal with the issue.  A committee was formed to reconcile the bills, but the resulting compromise bill did not have the votes to pass.

Eventually, however, a new bill was agreed upon and it was recently signed into law.  Section 2 of the bill specifically states that "it is the intent of the General Assembly that this Act abrogate the holding of the Court of Appeals in Tracey v. Solesky, 427 Md. 627 (2012)."  To achieve this, the statute does two things:  it creates a rebuttable presumption that in cases where a dog causes an injury to another the owner knew or should have known that the dog had vicious or dangerous propensities and it specifically says that if the defendant is not the owner of the dog, the law that applies is the law that was applicable before Tracey was decided.

What I find interesting about this act, though, is that, for cases against dog owners, it has adopted a standard that is more favorable to plaintiffs than it was pre-Tracey.

The law used to be that a plaintiff has the burden to show either negligence or that the defendant knew or should have known of the dog's dangerous propensities.  What Tracey held was that a plaintiff only had to prove the animal was a pit bull to meet the requirement of proving that knowledge.

Instead of scaling back the reach of the Tracey ruling, the new bill actually appears to expand it.  Now all dog owners are presumed to have knowledge and the burden would shift to them to prove the negative. After Tracey, pitbulls were presumed to be inherently dangerous; now all dogs are presumed inherently dangerous.

For a very complete summary of the issues involved go here.

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