Maryland Premises Liability: Pit Bull Owners and Landlords Strictly Liable for Dog Bites

In Dorothy M. Tracey v. Anthony K. Solesky, et al., No. 53, Sept. Term 2012 (Md. Apr. 26, 2012), a 4-3 majority opinion, the Maryland Court of Appeals modified the common law liability principles that previously applied and established a strict liability standard against owners and landlords for harboring or control in cases of Pit Bull and/or cross-bred Pit Bull dog attacks on humans on the basis that such animals are inherently dangerous.

A tenant in the defendant landlord’s building owed a pit bull that had escaped from pen with only a 4 foot high fence and an open top. The Court described the pen as obviously inadequate. On the day of the attack which gave rise to this action, the pit bull escaped from the pen twice. In the first instance, the pit bull escaped and attacked a boy, however, the owner was apparently able to restrain the dog and put it back in the pen. A short time later, the dog escaped the pen a second time and attacked a young boy, Dominic Solesky, the minor Plaintiff. Dominic was mauled by the dog, and sustained life threatening injuries, having to undergo multiple surgeries, spending seventeen days in the hospital, and one year in rehabilitation.

At the close of the Plaintiff’s case, the trial court granted the Defendant landlord’s Motion for Judgment, ruling that there was insufficient evidence to permit the issue of common law negligence to be presented to the jury. On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court holding that sufficient evidence did exist as to the extent of the landlord’s knowledge as to whether the dog was dangerous in respect to the common law standards in dog attack negligence cases for the issue to go to a jury.

When the matter came before the Court of Appeals, the Court stated that the trial court was correct on the state of the common law relating to dog attacks in law in existence at the time. Prior to Tracey, the common law in Maryland was that “in order to render the owner liable in damages to one bitten by his dog, it must be proved not only that the dog was fierce, but that the owner had knowledge that he was fierce”, which was a question that had to be determined by a jury. However, deciding that the common law did not reflect the dangerous nature and numerous lawsuits that resulted from dog attacks specifically by pit bull dogs, the Court decided to change the common law.

The Court cited to numerous Maryland cases over the past 100 years involving attacks by pit bulls focusing on the dicta in Matthews v. Amberwood Associates Limited Partnership, Inc., 351 Md. 544, 719 A.2d 119 (1998). The Court also cited several other federal and state cases as well as news articles and other reports detailing the significant number of injuries and fatalities associated with the pit bull breed and the dangers presented by them. In particular, the Court repeatedly cited studies that showed that those injured or killed by dog attacks were disproportionally by pit bulls. Similarly, the Court quoted sources which stated that pit bull attacks, unlike attacks by other dogs, occur more often, are more severe, and are more likely to result in fatalities. Also, pit bulls tend to be stronger than other dogs, often giving no warning signals before attacking, are less willing than other dogs to retreat from an attack, even when they are in considerable pain.

Consequently, by modifying Maryland’s common law standard for negligence in dog attack cases, the Court held it was pit bulls are inherently dangerous activity for which landlords may be held strictly liable, stating “When an owner or a landlord is proven to have knowledge of the presence of a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull (as both the owner and landlord did in this case) or should have had such knowledge, a prima facie case is established. It is not necessary that the landlord (or the pit bull’s owner) have actual knowledge that the specific pit bull involved is dangerous.” Tracey at 8.

Accordingly, Maryland common law now finds the owner or landlord is strictly liable for the injuries inflicted in a pit bull attack if a plaintiff proves that the landlord knew or had reason to know the dog being kept on the premise was a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull mix.

Judges Greene, Harrell, and Barbera dissented from the Majority’s ruling in part because it makes the issue of whether a dog is actually harmless, or the owner or landlord has any reason to know that the dog is dangerous, irrelevant to the standard of strict liability. Rather, liability will attach solely on the basis of the breed of the dog. The dissent was also critical of the Majority for grounding its ruling upon the perceptions about a particular breed of dog, rather than upon adjudicated facts showing that the responsible party possessed the requisite knowledge of the animal’s inclination to do harm, thereby transforming a clear factual question into a legal question in an effort to create liability on the part of the landlord.

Categories: Maryland