Owners of pets injured or killed by an individual’s tortious act could be awarded up to $25,000 in compensatory damages – rather than the current limit of $10,000 – under legislation the House Judiciary Committee considered Friday.
Maryland law compensates only the owners’ reasonable veterinary expenses and the fair market value of the pet if it dies from its injuries. The proposed $15,000 increase is in recognition of the rise in veterinary care costs since the damages cap was last raised, from $7,500 to $10,000, in 2017, said Del. J. Sandy Bartlett, the measure’s chief sponsor.
The proposed boost was also prompted by the effort by owners of a dog allegedly shot by an Anne Arundel County neighbor to be compensated for the more than $29,000 in veterinary and legal costs they claim to have spent on their schnauzer Buddy’s recovery.
The legislation, House Bill 154, has been dubbed “Buddy’s Law.”
Bartlett, a judiciary committee member, called the current $10,000 cap “unjustly low” in that it provides inadequate compensation for the veterinary expenses in treating severely injured animals.
“Arbitrary caps never allow for exceptions,” said Bartlett, D-Anne Arundel.
The Maryland Association for Justice, an organization of plaintiffs’ attorneys, voiced its support for the bill but criticized the underlying law for limiting the compensation available for the negligent destruction of someone’s property – in this case, a cherished pet.
With all other, less adored property, Maryland law permits the injured party to be compensated to the full extent of their economic loss, David Wildberger said on the association’s behalf.
Pets are “a unique type of property,” Wildberger told the committee. “It is property that can love and be loved.”
The proposed cap increase, however, drew opposition from insurance organizations that said a $15,000 rise just four years after the cap was set at $10,000 would far exceed the rate of inflation and the reasonable cost of veterinary care.
“There is no doubt that vet bills are expensive,” said Andrew Kirkner, of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.
But Kirkner, a self-described “dog lover,” said bills over $10,000 are uncommon. He added that veterinarian insurance is available for pet owners and potential recoveries of up to $25,000 would spur needless litigation.
D. Robert Enten, representing the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said he has been a pet owner and has empathy for those who have suffered the injury or death of a beloved animal. However, the “steep increase” from $10,000 to $25,000 would far exceed the inflation rate and the reasonable costs of veterinary care, he told the committee.
Bartlett’s bill has been cross-filed in the Senate. Sen. Pamela Beidle, D-Anne Arundel, is the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 292.
The Judiciary Committee’s consideration of the cap increase comes amid the Maryland Court of Appeals’ weighing of whether owners of tortiously injured or killed pets can be awarded damages for their emotional pain even though the law compensates only their economic loss.
Counsel for the owner of a dog negligently shot and killed by an Anne Arundel County police officer told the state’s top court in September that the statute’s silence on compensatory damages for pain and suffering does not prevent a judge or jury from awarding such compensation, as is often done in other cases where a litigant has suffered a profound loss.
But Anne Arundel County’s lawyer countered that the General Assembly states explicitly when non-economic compensation is available and has even capped those damages in cases when the deceased loved one was a parent, child or spouse – not the family pet.
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.