On April 26, 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued an opinion finding that an owner of a pit bull, or of a pit bull mix, is ‘strictly liable’ for injuries caused by such animal. This changed what had been the rule in Maryland: that a dog owner is liable only upon proof that the owner had knowledge of the particular animal’s propensity for vicious behavior. The full text of the opinion, as well as the dissent, can be found here (Tracey v. Solesky).
My decision to briefly write about this case is borne of the fact that my own personal feelings and opinions largely mirror the debate that played out in the Tracey case itself. I am a dog lover, a dog owner, and I have mixed feelings about pit bulls. I believe that any dog raised to fight will eventually become a vicious animal. The issue with pit bulls, in my view, is twofold: first, certain individuals are drawn to pit bulls precisely because they have been labeled as tough, aggressive, fighting animals. They acquire pit bulls for that reason, treat them with the belief that pits are vicious, and have a goal of fostering a mean animal. The Michael Vicks of the world who are drawn to dog fighting favor pits largely because of the reputation of the pit. The second issue that sets pit bulls, as a breed, apart from other animals is that they are physically strong. When a small dog attacks, there is only so much damage it can do. Certainly a small dog can maim an infant or can cause serious injury to an adult, but a grown person can certainly act to restrain a small dog attacking a child or other person. Pit bulls, in contrast, tend to cause more extensive injury when they do attack. In other words, even if they don’t have a greater propensity to attack people, the consequences that ensue when they do attack are far more grave than with other breeds.
In its opinion, the Tracey Court’s legal holding was as follows:
We hold that upon a plaintiff’s sufficient proof that a dog involved in an attack is a pit bull or a pit bull mix, and that the owner, or other person(s) who has the right to control the pit bull’s presence on the subject premises (including a landlord who has the right and/or opportunity to prohibit such dogs on leased premises as in this case) knows, or has reason to know, that the dog is a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull mix, that person is strictly liable for the damages caused to a plaintiff who is attacked by the dog on or from the owner’s [or landlord’s] premises.
The dissenting judge (Judge Greene) opinion took issue with the majority’s decision to change the common law — rather than allow the legislature to do so; Judge Greene also disagreed with the notion of labeling an entire breed as inherently dangerous (without respect to the characteristics of the particular dog involved in a specific case).
Because this case is now in the news, and on the assumption that you may share my ambivalence about pit bulls, I wanted to make the court opinion itself available to you.