Taylor Legal Blog

Strict Liability for Pit Bulls

Posted by Katherine L. Taylor, Attorney and CPA, Chief Problem SolverMay 13, 20120 Comments

On April 26, 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals held in Tracey v. Solesky that anyone with the ability to limit the presence on their property of a pit bull or mixed-breed pit bull is subject to strict liability in the event that the dog bites a human. This is a drastic departure from the previous common law, which had placed the burden on the plaintiff to proof that a dog that bites a person had a history of aggression. The new ruling is unique in that it singles out a specific breed, a stance adopted by some local municipalities and counties across the country but never by a state supreme court. The dissent in the case pointed out a few flaws with the courts reasoning, including that the opinion did not specify what defines a pit bull (the term actually has been used to describe a number of breeds) or the degree to which any individual dog is a pit bull (regarding the percentage of breed).

The case has implications for dog owners, business owners, and residential and commercial landlords. Dog owners may find themselves subject to additional lease terms if they possess lease terms, or may find themselves unable to obtain a lease while owning a pit bull. Some animal advocates have postulated that the ruling will lead to record numbers of bully breed dogs being surrendered to animal shelters, which in turn will be unable to adopt out the dogs because of stigma associated with the breeds. Additionally, concern has been raised that dogs of suspect breed - as there are many breeds which are confused with pit bulls - may be unfairly judged and surrendered.

Tracey v. Solesky placed strict liability on landlords as well as pit bull owners. Landlords have the ability to restrict what breeds of dogs are present on their property; as such, the court has held that landlords have a burden to determine what breed of dog is on their property. Landlords may want to pursue stringent intake for pet owners, including training employees to recognize pit bulls. Additionally, landlords who choose to allow pit bulls on their property may want to request additional insurance from tenants.

One group that the opinion neglects to consider is the small business owner who holds a commercial lease. Veterinarians, dog groomers, pet food stores, and other businesses that cater to dog owners and welcome dogs onto their property could be held to strict liability for the presence of pit bulls on their property. Small business owners have less liberty to limit who enters their business, but could possibly be held responsible for attacks that occur during ingress and egress from their property. Negotiation of commercial leases for these businesses may include provisions regarding pit bull liability.