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Maryland Court of Appeals Adopts Strict Liability for Owners and Landlords in Pit Bull Attacks

Dorothy M. Tracey v. Anthony K. Solesky, et al.
Appeal No. 53, (Court of Appeals of Maryland)

by Eric M. Leppo, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

In this recently issued opinion of the Maryland Court of Appeals, the Court saw fit to modify the common law, and adopted a strict liability standard in cases where Pit Bull dogs and/or cross-bred Pit Bull dogs attack humans.

The case before the Court presented an attack by a pit bull named Clifford. The dog escaped from what the Court described as an obviously inadequately small pen twice on the day of the occurrence. Apparently, he attacked two (2) different boys at different times that day, the second of which was Dominic Solesky, the minor Plaintiff in the case. Dominic was mauled by the dog, and as a result had to undergo five (5) hours of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, spent seventeen (17) days in the hospital, and one (1) year in rehabilitation.

The trial court granted the landlord Defendant’s Motion for Judgment at the close of the Plaintiff’s case. The trial judge ruled that the evidence was insufficient to permit the issue of common law negligence to be presented to the jury. The Court of Special Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court holding that sufficient evidence existed for the issue to go to the jury.

The Defendant/landlord appealed the reversal and the matter came before the Court of Appeals. The Court noted that on the state of the law at the time for the trial, the grant of judgment to the landlord was a proper ruling by the trial court. Tracey, at *5. Rather than apply the current law, the Court proceeded to change the common law.

The Court’s opinion cited extensively to past cases involving attacks by pit bulls including Matthews v. Amberwood Associates Limited Partnership, Inc., 351 Md. 544, 719 A.2d 119 (1998), as well as news publications and other sources detailing the dangers presented by such doges, and the significant number of injuries and deaths associated with the pit bull breed.

In changing the Maryland common law, the Court indicated it was answering this questions as phrased by the Appellant, “Is the harboring of American Staffordshire Terriers (more commonly known as “pit bulls”) by tenants an inherently dangerous activity for which landlords may be held strictly liable?” Tracey at *6.

The Court answered this question in the affirmative stating that its opinion in Tracey would, “Establish in this case, and prospectively, a strict liability standard in respect to the owning, harboring or controlling of pit bulls and cross-bred pit bulls in lieu of the traditional common law liability principles that were previously applicable to attacks by such dogs.” Tracey at *7.

The Court went on to state, “When an owner or a landlord is proven to have knowledge of the presence of a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull (as both the owner and landlord did in this case) or should have had such knowledge, a prima facie case is established. It is not necessary that the landlord (or the pit bull’s owner) have actual knowledge that the specific pit bull involved is dangerous.” Tracey at *8.

Therefore, moving forward, when a human is involved in a pit bull attack in Maryland, the owner or landlord is strictly liable for the injuries inflicted if Plaintiff proves that the landlord knew or had reason to know the dog being kept on the premise was a pit bull or cross-bred pit bull mix.

Judges Greene, Harrell, and Barbera dissented from the majority decision making an owner or landlord strictly liable. The dissent notes that the Majority’s ruling makes the issue of whether a dog is actually harmless, or the owner or landlord has any reason to know that the dog is dangerous, irrelevant. Rather, liability will attach solely on the basis of the breed of the dog.