Community Associations Update - May 2012
Maryland: Strict Liability for Pit Bull Attacks
By: Jennifer S. Jackman, Esq.
On April 26, 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest Court in Maryland, held that pit bulls are "inherently dangerous" and imposed strict liability on dog owners for injuries caused by their pit bulls or pit bull mixes. This strict liability standard applies not only to the dogs' owners, but also to other persons who have the "right to control the pit bull's presence on the subject premises" and know, or have reason to know, that there is a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull mix on the premises.
"Strict liability" means that a person is automatically liable for damages without requiring proof of negligence. Simply put, a dog bite victim no longer needs to prove that the dog owner was negligent or knew that his or her dog was dangerous. Instead, the mere fact that a pit bull or pit bull mix attacks and injures someone means that the owner will be held liable.
As for landlords and persons who have a right to control the property and prohibit such dogs, the plaintiff need only prove that the person knew, or had reason to know, of the pit bull's presence in order to establish liability against that person.
To win a dog attack case, the victim traditionally had to prove that the dog owner, landlord or person with control over the property had knowledge of the dog's dangerous propensities. Under this controversial decision, the victim only has to show that the dog is a pit bull or pit bull mix.
In the case (Tracey v. Solesky), the plaintiff, a young boy, sustained life-threatening injuries after being mauled by a pit bull who escaped from his dog pen. The victim sued the dog owner and the landlord who owned the property where the dog was living. Ordinarily, the plaintiff would be required to prove that the landlord knew that the dog was dangerous in order to hold the landlord liable for the attack. In this law-changing decision, however, the Court of Appeals imposed a new strict liability standard for both dog owners and persons with the right to control the property, holding that it was no longer necessary to prove knowledge that the dog was dangerous or had a propensity to be dangerous.
What does this mean to Maryland community associations?
The Tracey v. Solesky case did not involve a community association, but the court used very broad language in holding that any persons (which may include other types of legal entities) who have the "right to control the pit bull's presence on the subject premises" may be held liable if they knew, or should have known, of the dog's presence. Depending upon an association's governing documents, the Board of Directors may have the right to control and implement pet policies and/or to prohibit nuisances. If the governing documents give the Board of Directors that authority, then, under the Tracey v. Solesky decision, the Association could face potential liability for pit bull attacks if the Association knew, or should have known, of the pit bull's presence. Whether or not the pit bull has exhibited dangerous behavior is of no consequence. The mere fact that the Association knew, or should have known, of the pit bull's presence may be enough to impose liability if the courts extend the Tracey v. Solesky decision to community associations.
In the wake of this decision, we strongly urge associations to consider imposing rules prohibiting owners from owning, harboring or allowing pit bulls or pit bull mixes to be present in their communities, if the governing documents provide for such rulemaking authority. In addition, we anticipate that injuries caused by pit bulls and other breeds perceived to be dangerous may be excluded from coverage under liability insurance policies. Accordingly, we recommend contacting your insurance broker to ensure you have coverage for such claims.