Mary Paone Latz v. Jacob Parr, No. 977, September Term, 2019 (Court of Special Appeals of Maryland)
Statistics show dog ownership increased in nearly every demographic over the past 10 years. It’s no surprise that over the same period the law concerning liability for damages caused by dogs have presented unique challenges for Maryland courts and legislators. In Mary Paone Latz v. Jacob Parr, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals was recently asked to address a surprisingly difficult question: who “owns” a dog?
The pup at the center of the controversy was Ravyn, a two-and-a-half year old, seventy-to-eighty pound dog who had an alleged habit of getting loose. Ravyn was adopted from a Maryland animal shelter by the defendant, Jacob Parr (“Defendant”), and his girlfriend of over nine years, Vicki Nichols. Ms. Nichols lived and worked in New Jersey and visited Defendant in Maryland on most weekends. Ravyn usually stayed with Ms. Nichols when she was in New Jersey.
Mary Latz (“Plaintiff”) and her husband rented a basement apartment near Defendant’s home. On August 15, 2015, Ravyn ran through an open door to the Latz’s residence and began chasing the Latz’s cat. Plaintiff was injured while trying to restrain and remove Ravyn from the premises. Defendant and Ms. Nichols claimed Ravyn broke loose while they were walking when the collar broke off allowing Ravyn to run free. Plaintiff and her husband claimed Ravyn ran loose regularly and, more importantly, was wearing a collar at the time of the incident.
Plaintiff filed suit in the Circuit Court for Howard County seeking compensation for her injuries. Before the jury returned a verdict, the court granted Defendant’s motion for judgment. The trial court concluded that the evidence showed that Ms. Nichols was Ravyn’s owner and, because Ravyn got loose while away from Defendant’s property, there was no evidence of Defendant’s negligence.
Plaintiff appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals where the appellate court deliberated over whether Defendant could be considered Ravyn’s owner. The appellate court analyzed Courts & Judicial Proceedings § 3-1901 (“CJP § 3-1901”), which provided the evidentiary standard for the cause of action. CJP § 3-1901 was enacted in 2012 following the Tracey v. Solesky decision from Maryland’s highest court. The Tracey court held that owners or harborers and keepers of pit bull or pit bull mix breeds who knew or had reason to know the breed of the dog could be held strictly liable for injuries caused by pit bulls or pit bull mixes. CJP § 3-1901 modified this holding by creating a rebuttable presumption that the owner of a dog knew or should have known that the dog was vicious or dangerous, and that the rebuttable presumption could not be ruled on by a judge before a jury returns a verdict. The language of CJP § 3-1901, however, did not define the term “owner” and failed to expressly include language extending the standard to “harborers” or “keepers” of dogs.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals concluded that CJP § 3-1901 was enacted only to create the “rebuttable presumption” of the owner’s knowledge of the vicious or dangerous nature of the dog without making any other changes to the common law. As such, the lack of a clear definition of “owner” in CJP § 3-1901 and its omission of the words “harborers” or “keepers” did not prevent the term “owner” from potentially applying to Defendant in this case. Because the rebuttable presumption applied to the Defendant, the question of whether Defendant was Ravyn’s “owner” should have been submitted to the jury for consideration before the court granted Defendant’s motion for judgment. Similarly, the appellate court decided that a jury could have concluded that both Defendant and Ms. Nichols owed duties to Plaintiff to control Ravyn at the time of the incident, meaning that this issue should have been submitted to the jury for a verdict.
decision in Latz expands the
definition of an “owner” of a dog under CJP § 3-1901 to include individuals who
keep or harbor dogs. This will likely enlarge
the number of potentially liable parties in future claims for damages caused by
dogs. Because this issue must be decided
by a jury first, motions for summary judgment and motions for judgment may be
less successful in these cases moving forward, meaning that these cases will
likely need to go to trial to obtain a complete defense verdict.
-Benjamin A. Beasley, Associate Attorney