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High court will weigh if pets’ wrongful deaths are capped

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s top court will consider whether state law caps at $10,000 the compensation available to owners of pets killed by the negligence of others.

The Court of Appeals this week agreed to hear Anne Arundel County’s appeal of a $200,000 award to Michael Reeves after a jury found a police officer had acted negligently in shooting Reeves’ dog.

In papers filed with the high court, the county argued the compensation is constrained by the Maryland Pet Damages Statute, which has a current cap of $10,000 but was $7,500 at the time of the February 2014 shooting in Glen Burnie. Reeves, through counsel, countered that the dollar limit applies only to veterinary expenses and the pet’s fair market value and places no restraint on compensating the owner’s non-medical costs, including emotional ones.

The Court of Appeals will hear arguments in the case in May and is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31, the clerk’s office stated. The case is Anne Arundel County et al. v. Michael H. Reeves, No. 68, September Term 2019.

Officer Rodney Price was going door to door as part of a late-afternoon investigation of a spate of burglaries in Glen Burnie when he knocked on Reeves’ door, according to testimony at Reeves’ civil lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. Receiving no answer, Price said, he returned to his car.

The officer said he then heard the screen door open and saw Reeves’ growling Chesapeake Bay retriever, Vern, come toward him and lunge, placing his front paws on Price’s left forearm and his muzzle two inches from the officer’s face.

Saying he feared for his life, Price testified he took a step back, drew his gun and fired two shots into the dog. The officer added he was carrying a baton, a stun gun and mace but chose not to use those less-than-lethal weapons though the dog never bit him and Price had no cuts or scratches on his forearm.

The jury awarded Reeves $1.2 million, including $500,000 in economic damages and $750,000 in non-economic damages for the officer’s gross negligence. Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Mark W. Crooks reduced the gross negligence award to $200,000, citing the cap under the Local Government Tort Claims Act (LGTCA), and the economic damages award to $7,500 under the Pet Damages Statute for a total of $207,500.

The county sought review by the intermediate Court of Special Appeals, which in October rejected the county’s argument that the total award should be capped at $7,500 under the Pet Damages Statute. Instead, the Court of Special Appeals cut the award to $200,000, citing the LGTCA’s limit, prompting the county to seek review by the high court.

In its successful request for Court of Appeals review, the county said the Pet Damages Statute trumps the LGTCA when a pet is the victim of a local government’s negligence.

“The General Assembly, by the passage of the Pet Damages Statute, has explicitly defined the compensatory damages recoverable for the destruction of a pet, and limited them to $7,500” as of February 2014, wrote Senior Assistant Anne Arundel County Attorney Philip E. Culpepper. “While the debate on the proper measure of compensation due to a pet owner for the loss of his pet could rage for eternity, the General Assembly has seen fit to proclaim that the compensatory damages available for such a loss shall not exceed $7,500.”

Culpepper noted the General Assembly raised the limit to $10,000 in 2017 for claims arising after Oct. 1, 2017.

In Reeves’ response to the county’s review request, attorney Cary J. Hansel stated that the Pet Damages Statute’s cap applies only to the pet’s fair market value and the “reasonable and necessary cost of veterinary care,” as expressly stated in the law. The statute does not restrict the owner’s available compensation for “pain and suffering or lost wages and other economic injuries,” wrote Hansel, of Hansel Law P.C. in Baltimore.

“If the General Assembly did not mean to limit the application of the cap to the economic value of the dog and its medical bills, that body certainly would not have included that limitation in the statute to begin with,” Hansel said.

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