Greenbelt City Council grappled Monday to understand whether the city and housing communities could be sued in the case of pit bull attacks. The discussion was the result of a much-debated decision by Maryland's Court of Appeals earlier this year that landlords and owners could be held liable for pit bull injuries.
Prince George's County has had a ban on pit bulls since 1997, but Councilman Edward Putens was concerned that in cases where residents broke the ban, the court’s decision did not clarify whether responsibility for injuries could extend beyond dog owners and landlords to homeowners associations, condominiums, housing cooperatives, or the city, for that matter.
If it did, he worried that the results could be disastrous.
“We got some home associations that are almost going bankrupt because they can’t collect their fees. And then you add on top of it an award of $500,000," Putens said. "You might as well just tell them 'Go sink it, and just burn the houses and run away.'"
City Solicitor John Shay told council that it was unclear whether the court's decision could extend that far. For now, the ruling only addressed making dog owners and landlords liable, he said.
Shay suggested that the Maryland legislature could take actions to resolve some of the questions prompted by the the court's pit bull decision. Mayor Judith "J" Davis suggested council share its concerns with Prince George's County Council and Maryland Assembly officials at its annual legislative dinner in December.
Davis mentioned the housing cooperative Greenbelt Homes, Inc. regarding liability. She asked Shay how the court's ruling could affect its members since they don't own their property, but it is owned by the full body.
Shay said it was unclear what a court would decide in a case involving a cooperative which has control over the presence of animals on its property and a board that has knowledge of someone owning a pit bull. But what was clear was that trouble would follow.
"I can guarantee you one thing, if that pit bull bites somebody, the coop’s going to get sued," Shay said.
In its ruling, the Appeals Court included as liable "the owner or other person(s) who have the right to control the pit bull's presence on the subject premises and knows or has reason to know the dog is a pit bull."
In light of court's decision, Councilman Rodney Roberts asked under what circumstances it was more likely for a housing association to incur liability—when it had regulations concerning dog ownership or when it had none. The association that had taken steps to control dog ownership would more likely incur liability, according to Shay.
As for the City of Greenbelt, its code does not address breed bans. Greenbelt respects the county's ban, said Celia Craze, who manages the city's animal shelter.
“It’s the cleanest, easiest and least problematic way of addressing it," she said. "Breed bans are a messy place to be. I don't suggest the city be there."
Roberts concluded that the best route may be not to have any policy and to allow the county or city policy have control.