Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals


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More on Tracey v. Solesky and Maryland dog bite cases

The Maryland General Assembly’s Task Force appointed to address Tracey v. Solesky are working on a bill, and the General Assembly may have the opportunity to vote on the bill during an upcoming special session this month.  The bill is expected to impose liability on all dog owners, regardless of breed, but revert to the common law for landlords, imposing liability only if the landlord knows of the dog’s vicious propensities.

In the meantime, the law remains as it was prior to the Tracey v. Solesky ruling.  Delegate Heather Mizeur sent a request to the Maryland Attorney General regarding the status of the law while Ms. Tracey’s motion to reconsider is pending in the Maryland Court of Appeals.  The Attorney General responded that Tracey v. Solesky is stayed and does not take effect until the Court takes up the motion to reconsider.

Other jurisdictions are following Maryland closely, including right here in northern Virginia.  For a more detailed look at the ruling and its impact for Virginia, don’t miss my article in NOVADog Magazine’s summer edition.  You can also learn more by watching the current episode of The Pet Show with Dr. Katy, which features several interviews, including one with Libby Sherrill, the creator of the documentary Beyond the Myth.

UPDATE (8/6/12):  The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates just issued Resolution 100, promoting breed neutral legislation and proposing the elimination of breed bans and breed specific legislation.


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Public Meeting on the Solesky Decision this Sunday

The Maryland Animal Law Center will be hosting a public meeting on the fallout of the Solesky decision and what impact it has on pet care industry companies, rescues and owners.  The meeting is this Sunday, May 6 from 2:00 to 4:00 at Coventry School for Dogs in Columbia, Maryland.  This is a great opportunity to get up to speed on what impact the Solesky decision may have.


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Follow up on the Solesky Ruling

Concerned about the recent Solesky decision in Maryland, and what impact it will have?

Tune in tonight at 8:00 PM on Pit Bulletin Legal News Radio for an in-depth discussion of the Solesky decision, and what impact it is having on rescues and insurance companies.  If you can’t make it tonight, the show will be archived so you can listen to it later.

The Humane Society of the United States has also compiled information especially for pit bull and pit bull mix owners who live and rent in Maryland.

If you are looking for an animal law attorney in Maryland, you can reach out to the Maryland State Bar Animal Law Section for help.


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Sometimes Bright Line Rules Just Aren’t the Answer: The Problem with Tracey v. Solesky

Bright line rules have their place. Society often benefits from clear, objective and unambiguous rules, when those rules produce even-handed and predictable results and  have very little risk of creating harsh or unjust results. Take speed limits, voting ages, and Miranda warnings as examples.

But sometimes life is not black and white. Bright line rules are inappropriate and dangerous tools any time the issues turn on a variety circumstances and there is a risk of sweeping up innocent activity or individuals. Then a balancing test, or case-by-case analysis, is much more appropriate.

Today, the Court of Appeals of Maryland opted for a bright line rule in exactly the kind of case where a bright line rule is inappropriate. In Tracey v. Solesky, the Court ruled:

Upon a plaintiff’s sufficient proof that a dog involved in an attack is a pit bull or a pit bull cross, 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 a right to prohibit such dogs on leased premises) knows, or has reason to know, that the dog is a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull, that person is liable for the damages caused to a plaintiff who is attacked by the dog on or from the owner’s or lessor’s premises. In that case a plaintiff has established a prima facie case of negligence. When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous.

Such a bright line rule – pit bulls are per se dangerous – is misguided. Don’t get me wrong. I in no way condone what happened in this case. The dog was left in a small pen, escaped, and attacked and seriously injured a child. The owner put the dog back in the same pen, and the dog escaped yet again, and mauled another child, causing life threatening injuries.

The dog’s breed is not the main issue in this case. The much larger issue is the fact that the owner was completely irresponsible.

There was no reason for the Court to make new law in this case. The defendant could have tried to invoke the “one free bite” rule. But, at best, the “one free bite” rule would only help him escape civil liability for money damages as to the first child. He was certainly on notice of the dog’s propensity when the second child was attacked. Additionally, the “one free bite” rule would not impede a dangerous dog proceeding, and a well-crafted dangerous dog statute can provide restitution to victims without the hassle of a civil law suit.

The most frustrating part of this ruling is that there are many pit bull and pit bull mix owners who are highly responsible and who will get swept up in this bright line rule. Likewise, the ruling will not affect the highly irresponsible owners of dogs who are not pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Dare I even mention the issue of how a court is to determine whether a dog is a pit bull or pit bull mix.

Courts and legislators should focus on owner responsibility, not breed. Fortunately, Virginia’s dangerous dog statute makes it clear that breed alone is not a reason to declare a dog to be dangerous. I hope Virginia keeps its focus on owner responsibility and does not choose to follow the path of neighboring Maryland in this regard.


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Lewis & Clark Animal Law Conference This Weekend!

This weekend marks Lewis & Clark Law School’s 19th Annual Animal Law Conference.  The theme this year is “Standing Up for Animals:  Can a Bad Economy Inspire Greater Goodness?”

Speakers from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the ASPCA, Lewis & Clark Law School’s Center for Animal Law Studies and professors from around the country and the world are presenting.  This conference is enormously successful and sells out each year, so I’m excited to be here to participate.

If you’re in town for the conference, please let me know!  I’d love to meet up and say hi.


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News Flash! VFHS Regional Meeting Tonight in Arlington!

Join the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies tonight for their Regional Meeting in Northern Virginia.  The meeting will be held from 7:00 to 9:00 PM at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, at 2650 S Arlington Mill Drive, Arlington, VA 22206 in Shirlington.

We will discuss the status of animal welfare in Virginia, upcoming legislation and what you can do to help.  Guest speakers include representatives from the Humane Society of the United States and Ally Cat AlliesCheck VFHS’s website for further information.

Hope to see you there!

Also take note that VFHS is offering an early bird special to renew your membership, and the new Comprehensive Animal Law Handbooks are out and available for only $10.  And stay tuned for more information about VFHS’s Annual Conference in Williamsburg on March 29-31, 2012!


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How To Handle Hybrids?

Maine is implementing a new law that requires a wildlife-in-captivity permit for wolf hybrids, and spaying or neutering for any current owners of hybrids.

It is legal to own a hybrid in Virginia, but Virginia Code Section 3.2-6582 allows localities to set up permitting systems to regulate such things as how many hybrids a person can own, identification by tags or tattoos, and the keeping and handling of hybrids.

Today’s Washington Post article quotes Jim Doughty, who runs a refuge with wolf hybrids, as saying that this law unfairly targets hybrids, and that:

Any animal, no matter whether it’s a pure wolf or a Chihuahua or a pug or anything else, depends on the person and how they raise it. It’s the same thing with your kids. If you’re abusive toward your kids, they’re not going to be so good. If you work with them, they’ll be great.

I disagree with Doughty. Although I am an avid critic of breed specific legislation, I see wolves and wolf hybrids in a very different light from pit bulls and other dog breeds. No good comes of spreading the rumor that dogs and wolves are one in the same. For many reasons – including for safety, and from a behavior and training perspective – the public needs to be made aware of the fact that dogs are not wolves – and wolves are not dogs.

The difference between wolves and dogs comes across very clearly in John Bradshaw’s excellent book Dog Sense. The following video clip from BBC’s Secret Life of Dogs shows nature winning out over nurture when scientists try to raise wolf cubs like puppies (starting at 2:53 in this clip):

What is your experience with hybrids? Are you for or against a permit system for the ownership of hybrids like Maine has just passed?