Taking a hard line on the owner's responsibility for a pet's behavior, the state Senate on Thursday unanimously passed its version of a bill intended to reverse a court decision declaring pit bulls an inherently dangerous breed.
Senate passage sets up a likely conflict with the House, which has taken a significantly different approach to the issue of a dog owner's liability for bites. Both versions of the bill set the same rules for all breeds, without singling out pit bulls, but the two chambers set different standards for a dog owner to avoid liability when a pet bites someone.
The Senate set a standard of "clear and convincing" proof that the owner did not know in advance that a biting dog had aggressive tendencies. The House would let the owner escape liability by meeting the lesser standard of preponderance of the evidence.
A joint conference committee could be asked to attempt to resolve the differences between the two chambers. If no agreement is reached, last year's Court of Appeals decision labeling pit bulls dangerous would remain law.
With the Senate and House taking starkly different approaches amid personal recriminations, it is unclear how the two sides could find common ground. While he joined in the unanimous vote, Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, expressed concern that the Senate's position could result in an impasse that leaves the court decision in place.
Pipkin said he worries that failure to pass a bill would provide a windfall for trial lawyers.
"I see 1-800-DOG-BITE," he said.
The move to the higher standard in the Senate bill upset a compromise reached early in the session between Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, and Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, an influential member of the House Judiciary Committee.
Simmons' personal criticism of Frosh, a fellow Montgomery County Democrat, for failing to win his committee's approval of the compromise brought a rebuke from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Miller, speaking to the full Senate, delivered a strong defense of Frosh and accused Simmons of failing to understand how the Senate operates.