Saturday, May 5, 2012

Maryland Court holds that pitbulls have inherent propensity to attack; changes the elements of cause of action

A couple of weeks ago, the Court of Appeals of Maryland issued an interesting opinion on the elements of a strict liability claim in a case for damages caused by a pit bull.

As you probably know, according to traditional principles of strict liability, the owner of a domesticated animal can be strictly liable for the damages it causes if the plaintiff shows that the owner had knowledge of the dangerous propensities of the animal.  Typically, that evidence would be that the defendant knew the dog acted overly aggressively toward people, that it tried to attack people or, obviously, that it had bitten people in the past.  Lacking that evidence, the defendant would only be liable if the plaintiff could show negligence.

In this new case, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that if the dog is a pit bull or a pit bull mix, the plaintiff only needed to show that the defendant knew the animal was a pit bull or a pit bull mix.  In a way, thus, the court found that by their very nature all pit bulls and pit bull mix dogs have dangerous propensities.

For this reason, the owner of a pit bull that causes an injury can be strictly liable even if the dog has never before shown any aggressive behavior of any kind.  Three judges dissented, arguing, among other things, that the majority opinion should not have ruled as it did when the parties had not offered expert evidence on the question of the inherent dangerous propensities of pit bulls. 

The case is called Tracey v. Solesky and you can read the full opinion here.

UPDATE (August 2012): On a motion to reconsider the court has amended the opinion to eliminate the references to "pit bull mixes."  The ruling now applies only to pure pit bulls.

UPDATE (December 2012):  The Solesky family has released the tape of the 911 call in this case.  Go here for more on the story and to listen to the tape.

UPDATE (Summer 2013):  After a long process, the attempt by the Maryland legislature to enact a statute to override the holding in Tracey has 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.

UPDATE (April 2014):  Governor signs new bill into law.  Bill abrogates holding in Tracey v. Solesky.  Now there are three different approaches to the issues of injuries caused by dogs.  If the injury is caused by a dog while "at large," the plaintiff can bring a claim under strict liability principles without having to show knowledge of dangerous propensities.  In cases that do not involve a dog "at large," if the claim is against the owner, the attack creates a rebuttable presumption of knowledge of dangerous propensities. If the case is against the landlord of the owner of the dog, the plaintiff has to show knowledge of the dog's dangerous propensities, as well as knowledge that the dog was on the leased property and that the landlord had the authority to remove the dog or to have the dog removed from the property.