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Maryland high court rules pets’ wrongful deaths are capped

Maryland high court rules pets’ wrongful deaths are capped

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Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera says the proposed name change necessary because the current moniker is “the source of much confusion.” (The Daily Record/File Photo)
Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote for the majority in the 6-1 decision. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Owners of pets killed by the negligence of others can recover at most $10,000 under Maryland law, the state’s top court ruled Monday in denying any recovery beyond the statutory cap for a Glen Burnie man’s emotional anguish after his beloved dog was shot to death by a grossly negligent police officer.

In its 6-1 decision, the Court of Appeals said pet deaths caused by negligence are covered by the Maryland Pet Damages Statute, which has a current cap of $10,000 and is silent regarding available compensation for the owner’s pain and suffering.

That statutory silence must be interpreted as the General Assembly’s denial of additional compensation, the court said, noting that the legislature has expressly provided for non-economic damages in wrongful-death actions involving human victims.

“Unlike the Wrongful Death Act, the General Assembly did not provide a formula in (the Pet Damages Statute) for quantifying emotional loss in the situation of the wrongful death of a pet,” Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote for the majority.

“Our reading of (the Pet Damages Statute) in light of the Wrongful Death Act provisions confirms our understanding that such damages are unavailable in the case of the tortious injury to or death of a pet,” Barbera added. “Certainly, the General Assembly knows how to expressly provide for noneconomic damages when it wants to, as it did with respect to the damages under the Wrongful Death Act.”

But the high court expressly left open the question of whether someone could be compensated for the emotional trauma of losing a pet based on a constitutional, rather than a statutory, claim of wrongdoing by a police officer. Specifically left unresolved is whether non-economic damages would be available based on the argument that the officer unconstitutionally deprived the owner of property, the pet, without due process of law.

The Court of Appeals’ decision was a defeat for Michael Reeves, whose Chesapeake Bay retriever, Vern, was shot and killed by Anne Arundel County police officer Rodney Price in February 2014. An Anne Arundel County Circuit Court jury had awarded Reeves $1.25 million, but appellate decisions had cut that figure to $200,000 when the case came before the Court of Appeals.

In its decision, the high court reduced Reeves’ award to $7,500, the Pet Damages Statute’s cap in February 2014. The General Assembly raised the limit to $10,000 in 2017.

In a lone, impassioned dissent, Judge Michele D. Hotten said pets are not mere property and the Pet Damages Statute is broad enough to permit owners to be compensated for their emotional pain when their pets are killed by another’s gross negligence.

“Marylanders have strong, emotional bonds with their pets, especially their dogs,” Hotten wrote.

“The designation of dogs as mere property belies common experience, cultural values, and societal expectations,” Hotten added. “Treating dogs as mere property also erases a dog’s intrinsic attributes as a living being and the irreplaceable instinct to love and protect human companions. A dog, unlike an inanimate object, welcomes its human companion after a day at work, protects its human companion when in danger, and exhibits behavior and emotions that (are) consistent with grief and distress when its human companion is ill, injured, or passes away.”

Hotten expressed hope that the General Assembly, at the urging of owners, will “move Maryland forward” in its treatment of pets.

“The legal arc of Maryland is one of progress and bends inexorably towards greater recognition of rights,” Hotten wrote.

“Our pets are more than just living beings,” Hotten added. “They are widely considered best friends, guardians, and members of the family. Maryland law should recognize and bestow pets with the same degree of dignity.”

Reeves’ attorney, Cary J. Hansel III, praised Hotten’s “incredibly powerful dissent” after having read the majority’s “heartbreaking” decision that regarded pets as property.

“It was wonderful to see a small ray of hope in the dissent,” said Hansel, of Hansel Law PC in Baltimore.

Anne Arundel County Attorney Greg Swain said in a statement that “we’re pleased to see the Court of Appeals agreed with the arguments the county made and I’m proud of the work Senior Assistant County Attorney Phil Culpepper and our team put into this case.”

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 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’s award of $1.25 million included $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, 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 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.

Barbera was joined in the opinion by Judges Robert N. McDonald, Shirley M. Watts, Joseph M. Getty, Brynja M. Booth and Jonathan Biran.

The high court rendered its decision in Anne Arundel County et al. v. Michael H. Reeves, No. 68, September Term 2019.

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