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Court weighs if owners get damages for pets’ wrongful death

Cary Hansel (Submitted photo)

Attorney Cary Hansel is representing Michael Reeves who sued Anne Arundel County after one of its officers shot and killed his dog. (Submitted photo)

An attorney for a man whose dog was negligently killed by a police officer told a skeptical Maryland high court Friday that state law allows pet owners to be awarded damages for the emotional pain caused by the tortious loss of their “animal family members.”

Under Maryland law, owners can collect up to $10,000 in compensation for the fair market value and reasonable and necessary veterinarian expenses for their lost pets. The Maryland Pet Damages Statute, however is silent regarding the availability of compensation for non-economic, or emotional, damages, Cary J. Hansel said in pressing the case of Michael Reeves, who has sued Anne Arundel County after one of its officers shot and killed his Chesapeake Bay retriever.

The law’s silence must be interpreted as the legislature’s allowance for recovery for the owners’ pain and suffering, Hansel told the seven-member Court of Appeals.

But that argument drew criticism from Judges Brynja M. Booth, Robert N. McDonald and Shirley M. Watts.

Far from being silent, the General Assembly uniformly states when non-economic damages are available and has, in fact, capped those damages in cases when the deceased loved one was a parent, child or spouse — not the family pet.

Booth added that Maryland law has historically regarded pets as property.

“We don’t permit non-economic damages for property damage,” Booth said. “Is a dog not property?”

Hansel acknowledged that animals were viewed as property when they helped tend to the fields but that the “modern trend” in many states is to recognize pets’ as family members whose deaths due to someone’s negligence merit damages for pain and suffering.

Such non-economic damages reflect “the reality of the loving bond between pets and their owners,” Hansel said.

Reeves’ dog, Vern, “died in his arms while he tried to save it,” added Hansel, of Hansel Law PC in Baltimore.

Attorney Philip E. Culpepper, representing Anne Arundel County, said he is a pet owner who well understands the emotional bond that develops between owners and their pets. However, the Maryland legislature has concluded that the owners’ pain and suffering is not compensable and damages are limited to the $10,000 cap, Culpepper told the high court.

“I concede in my heart I feel those (emotional ties) exist,” said Culpepper, senior assistant Anne Arundel County attorney. “(But) it’s not up to the court to make the law. It’s up to the legislature.”

Officer Rodney Price was going door to door in February 2014 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 dog 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 $1.25 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 the then-$7,500 cap under the Pet Damages Statute for a total of $207,500.

The county sought review by the intermediate Court of Special Appeals, which last October rejected the county’s argument that the total award should be capped at $7,500 under the Pet Damages Statute in effect at the time of the 2014 shooting.

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.

The General Assembly raised the Pet Damages Statute’s cap to its current $10,000 in 2017 for claims that arose on or after Oct. 1, 2017.

The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, Anne Arundel County et al. v. Michael H. Reeves, No. 68, September Term 2019.


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