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Landlords and Pit Bulls, Part 3

Blog entry by Anthony Taibi   
    At the end of the day, lawyers and dog rescue activists are really talking about different problems. The Maryland Court ruling has a good practical legal outcome, even if it is otherwise problematic in the way the activists suggest.  Traditionally, every dog gets “one free bite” without consequence to the owner, and landlords have little responsibility for obvious dangers posed by their tenants.  In addition, most renters do not have liability insurance, and so the injured are left without a remedy. As a practical matter it is difficult to prove that a dog owner has been, in some demonstrable way, “negligent” -- and thus liable -- at least until after a violent incident has taken place and been recorded (as few incidents are that result in less than a hospital visit in injury), and even then, there is no way to make many owners responsible: they will not go to jail for negligence except in the most egregious cases, and if they don't have insurance the victim will get nothing.  I agree that it is the owner and not the dog that is the real problem, as well as landlords who don't care if some of their tenants are a danger to the community.  Bite victims should not have to shoulder the high burden of proving that the owner or the landlord did something demonstrably irresponsible (i.e., negligent) in order to be compensated for their sometimes quite serious injuries.  Landlords and insurance companies will fight against any general imposition of strict liability, but we can get them to accept more limited enforceable rules of thumb (e.g., no coverage for dogs over 50 lbs., no coverage for pit bulls, etc.).

    The Maryland court's ruling is limited to the rules governing what must be proven by a bite victim seeking compensation for her injuries.  It should be enough for a victim to show she was injured by a particular dog to make those responsible for that dog to have to pay her hospital bills and other damages, regardless of whether she can show a specific stupid or inappropriate thing the owner did and the landlord knew about.  The common law imposes strict liability only when a defendant engages in “inherently dangerous” activities, including blasting with dynamite, keeping "wild" animals, or a dog known to have "vicious" or "mischievous" propensities.  Expanding this list to include certain breeds or sizes of dogs does not hurt responsible dog owners who have sufficient insurance, but may cause landlords to be more careful and make it easier for victims to be compensated.