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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Special Thanks to Operation Socialization for Guest Blogger Opportunity!

Hearty thanks to Operation Socialization for offering me a great guest blogger opportunity!  Operation Socialization is a network of professional dog trainers and businesses. Operation Socialization’s vision is to raise awareness about the importance of puppy socialization and to provide the humans on the other end of the leash with education and resources to give puppies the best possible start in life.

Operation Socialization recently asked me about ways to protect a dog training business.  Operation Socialization’s main focus for the guest blog series is on  risk management and insurance issues.  Insurance is one of the many components to protecting your business.  For a nice checklist to get you started (or to double check for your existing business), take a look at this prior blog post.

To read the first part of my response to  Operation Socialization’s questions on risk management and insurance issues, take a look at my guest post:  Are You Covered?  Protecting Your Business, Part One.


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No Kids Allowed? Arlington County Bans Kids From Dog Parks

We’ve all seen signs that say “No Dogs Allowed.”  But “No Kids Allowed”?  That’s exactly what is about to happen in Arlington County’s dog parks.  Arlington County plans to ban kids under 8, and require an adult to accompany kids 8 to 14.  Some find the ban unnecessary, while others find this a very appropriate ending to National Dog Bite Prevention Week.

The Examiner’s story by Gwyn Donahue gives details about a Shirlington Community Canine Area meeting from yesterday, and notes that neighboring jurisdictions also have rules about kids in dog parks.  Fairfax bans kids 8 and under from its dog parks, requires adult supervision for kids 9 to 15, and requires handlers to be at least 16.  Alexandria requires adults to supervise kids under 16 inside fenced areas of its dog parks.

Another story by Arlington Kids questions the reason for the ban, and concern about the fact that it seems the County has made its mind up already without much public input.  WUSA News9 has posted a story and video about the controversy, and cites concerns not just of dog bites, but also unintentional injuries such as a child being knocked over accidentally while up to 100 dogs run around off leash at any given time in Arlington’s busiest dog park.

If you would like to be heard, you can contact the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreations Division Chief through the County’s Contact Us page or at (703) 228-6523 or -6525.  And feel free to weigh in on the issue here!


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An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure: Dog Bite Prevention Week

In keeping with Dog Bite Prevention Week, many interesting statistics have popped up in the media.

The U.S. Postal Service has released statistics for the number of dog bites to postal workers in 2010, broken out by city. Houston took the top spot with 62 attacks. Denver, with its long-standing pit bull ban, took the #8 spot, with 31 bites. The fact that Denver would rank so high despite its firm adherence to breed specific legislation is hardly a surprise to those who really understand dog bites.  Research by the National Canine Research Council shows that dog bites do not occur due to breed.  Rather, the most relevant factors are whether the dog is a “resident” dog (versus a primarily indoor “family” dog), whether the dog is intact, and whether the owner is responsible or properly supervised the dog.

The Insurance Journal also released statistics for the number of and costs related to dog bite insurance claims. State Farm’s data shows that California tops the list for the most dog bite claims, at 369, while Florida has the highest costs per claim, with an average claim of $38,356. I cannot resist a big shout out to State Farm, which continues its tradition of refusing to deny coverage based on breed. The one exception even State Farm cannot escape – the state of Ohio, which classifies bully breeds as automatically “vicious.” So where does Ohio fall in the list of dog bite claims? Number 3, with 215 claims, right behind California and Illinois. So much for the efficacy of breed specific legislation.

One group most at risk of dog bites is children. Psychology Today has a great article explaining why children are so at risk, which is due to insufficient supervision by adults, and children’s notoriously bad skills at reading body language. In an effort to address this, and just in time for Dog Bite Prevention Week, Dr. Sophia Yin has provided a poster that you can download from her website on recognizing a fearful dog’s body language.

For other tips on how to prevent dog bites, visit the American Veterinary Medical Association’s site and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s siteYou can also find more great information and downloads on Doggone Safe’s site.