The Maryland Court of Appeals by a recent decision strikes yet another blow to already beleaguered property owners, landlords and property managers. A case decided by the Maryland Court of Appeals entitled Tracey v. Solesky, found in Ca. No 53, Sept 2011 (and reported in April 2012), has re-defined liability as it relates to attacks from pets, specifically Pit Bulls and Pit Bull Hybrids.
The case involved a 4-year-old boy who was attacked in 2009 by a Pit Bull in Prince Georges County. The dog resided at a nearby property that was rented and managed by a property manager. The boy survived his injuries and his parents sued both the property owners and the property managers.
In the original Circuit Court Trial, the Court found for the Defendants. The Tracy’s’ appealed and both the Intermediate Court of Special Appeals and Maryland’s highest Court, the Court of Appeals saw it differently and reversed the decision.
The law prior to this case stated that an animal must have demonstrated a ‘propensity to be dangerous’. The rule was often termed the “first bite is free” in that the first bite only demonstrated the propensity to be dangerous. Once that first bite occurred any succeeding bites were at the risk of the owners.
The Court ruling changed all this. It said that Pit Bulls and Pit Bull hybrids are ‘inherently dangerous’ animals and as such, no such dangerous propensity has to be shown before parties are subject to liability. In short, if you have a pit bull, or rent to people that do, the first bite is “no longer free”.
The law now says that owners of the animals and the owners, landlords, and property managers where the dog resides are all strictly liable if the dog hurts someone. No second chance, no “I didn’t know the dog was bad…..”, you’re guilty first time out of the box.
If the term “strict liability” sounds familiar to some landlords, it is also used in some of the standards for determining lead paint liability. In that instance, whether you knew lead paint was there or not, you were charged as if you knew it and the consequences that came from lead poisoning.
As to how to react to this Court’s ruling the “jury is still out” on that one. Clearly if potential tenants tell you up front that they have a Pit Bull or Pit Bull hybrid you are under no obligation to rent to them. If you do, you run the risk of suit should the dog attack someone. For those landlords that already have tenants under lease who happen to have Pit Bulls, legally there is usually no way to change that until renewal of the lease happens.
A possible exception would be if your already signed lease contains a clause specifying that the tenant will not engage or facilitate any dangerous activities. The Court of Appeals has now told us that by definition, owning a Pit Bull is a dangerous activity.