Recently, I became aware of a ruling by the Maryland courts. I know, I know. Such a shock – me being a lawyer and all, I guess I should know what the courts are up to.
In any event, this ruling affects those that fall into a couple categories: homeowners associations, those that own big dogs, and those who are both members of homeowners associations and own big dogs. Let me explain.
A big dog is usually defined, for insurance purposes, as a pit bull or a dog with the pit bull breed in it. The definition also can include German Shepherds, Doberman Pincers and Rottweilers – any dogs of a large size and high weight that have been known to cause damage when they attack humans.
Of course, there are other large breeds of dogs. Labradors, Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds and Labradoodles are quite big, but they’re usually known as docile. The conventional wisdom about dogs is that they get one bite. This means that a dog can lash out at one person or one dog without any legal ramification, unless, of course, it’s a mauling or a serious injury to a person or another dog. Then all bets are off.
After bite one, the dog is basically on notice. The next bite will cause both the dog and the owner some issues. Prior to the aforementioned court ruling, the damages for the dog bite would be imputed to the owner. This only makes sense, as the dog probably owns a couple of food dishes, bones and stuffed animals – hardly enough to pay any doctor bills and damages.
Due to the new court ruling, damages for the bite can be imputed to the owner and the homeowner’s association that the owner belongs to, especially if the bite occurs in the neighborhood’s common area. As you can imagine, this set a bomb off under a bunch of HOA’s.
Some HOAs overreacted, and decided they had to put together a dog registry to see who among their ranks owned a dog that could be considered dangerous. Thus, they sent out a mailer to all of their residents asking them to state what dogs they had in their possession (what breed, how old, name, etc.), as well as a waiver basically stating that if the dog happened to bite someone, the owner would hold the HOA harmless from any damages.
Of course, these mailings tended to do two things. First, a waiver is only as good as the circumstances surrounding the matter that gave rise to the litigation. Even if the dog owner signed the waiver, it might not do what the waiver intended, especially if the owner had nothing of value – no bank accounts, no insurance, no personal property. So, even with a signed waiver in hand, a court just might find the HOA liable. That isn’t good.
Second, it served to make a great many dog owners angry. While owning a dog (or a pet) is not an enumerated constitutional right, many feel as though they can only “pursue happiness” by having a pet as a member of their family. As such, they are not really inclined to fill out any documents above and beyond the standard paperwork for owning a pet – getting a license, making sure the dog has their shots, etc. Nor should they have to.
I could understand if these folks lived in an apartment – most apartments and rental situations have restrictions on the types of pets one can have on the premises. Also, if you choose to have a pet, you’re likely going to pay more in a security deposit and monthly rent than those who don’t live with an animal.
But for your own private residence? You should be able to do whatever (and have whatever) you want within those four walls – as long as it’s not a meth lab or anything else that would be illegal. And where would this registration end? Excessively dangerous vehicles, like four-wheelers or motorcycles? Let us not forget guns – once we start registering things, guns will be high up there on the list.
It’s my understanding that the Maryland General Assembly will attempt to repeal the HOA-Dog law by the end of this session, and we will speak of it no more. Let’s just hope that’s where all of this unpleasantness starts and ends.
Chris Markham writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.