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The legal status of pets and recent changes in Md. law

klumpp-jordan-col-sigThe legal status of pets, and associated property rights for pet owners, is a changing landscape under Maryland law. Property rights related to pets has always been a complex issue, as domestic animals are considered a unique form of property in Maryland. Even though they are living, breathing things, pets are generally considered personal property.

However, Maryland imposes certain limitations and expansions on the property rights associated with pets — and recent developments in the courts and legislature altered the legal treatment of pets under Maryland law.

One example of expanded property rights for pets is the “pet trust” law, which is codified at Md. Code Ann., Est. & Trusts, § 14.5-407.  That provision permits trusts for the purpose of caring for an animal alive during the lifetime of the settlor. Much like trusts established to benefit a person, a pet trust may be created to care for an animal. When all animals subject to a pet trust are no longer alive, the pet trust terminates.

Pet trusts and related estate planning tools for pet owners have become increasingly popular in recent years. One possible explanation is a modern trend of increased pet ownership and increased closeness with pets. In many respects, Maryland has mirrored that trend and has become a trailblazing jurisdiction for animal rights.

In 2018, Maryland became the second state in the country to impose a statewide ban of retail sale of animals sourced from puppy and kitten mills. The law, which is titled the “No More Puppy-Mill Pups Act of 2018” and took effect Jan. 1, 2020, combats large-scale breeding operations that keep animals in poor conditions while mass-producing them for sale.

On the other hand, a recent Court of Appeals of Maryland case scaled back pet owners’ property rights by limiting the damages recoverable for torts committed against pets. In Anne Arundel County, Maryland and Rodney Price v. Michael H. Reeves, No. 68, September Term, 2019, the Court of Appeals addressed whether Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. (“CJP”) § 11-110 permits a pet owner to recover non-economic damages for the tortious death or injury to a pet. The court held that non-economic damages are not recoverable and that compensatory damages are capped at the amount specified in CPJ § 11-110.

The case involved an on-duty police officer shooting and killing Reeves’s dog after entering Reeves’s property. As a result of the death of his pet, Reeves suffered emotional distress and began taking medication to cope with the loss. The jury found the officer grossly negligent, and both the Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals affirmed that finding of gross negligence.

On the issue of damages, the Court of Special Appeals held that CJP § 11-110 did not limit Reeves’s total available damages to the statutory cap of $7,500 (the amount applicable at the time of the incident). The Court of Appeals, however, reversed that decision, holding that Reeves’s compensatory damages were capped at $7,500. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the plain meaning of the statute and its legislative history indicate the Legislature’s intent to limit damages for pet owners.

The high court noted in dicta that “[t]he Legislature may wish to amend CJP § 11-110 in response to the various policy arguments in this case in order to allow for other forms of compensatory damages in cases involving the tortious injury or death of pets,” but at least for now, the court is unwilling to expand the damages available for the tortious death or injury of a pet.

The court’s decision in Reeves means that Maryland is not yet prepared to go as far as Alaska, California, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Puerto Rico and Washington, where emotional damages are recoverable for an injured or killed pet. Nonetheless, the Maryland Legislature’s appetite for laws relating to animal welfare could indicate a willingness to revise CPJ § 11-110 and the compensatory damages available to a pet owner.

As Judge Michele D. Hotten explained in her dissent in Reeves, “Marylanders have strong emotional bonds with their pets, especially their dogs… The designation of dogs as mere personal property belies common experience, cultural values, and societal expectations.” Reeves, No. 68, September Term, 2019, Dissenting Opinion by Hotten, J.

Whether the legislature concurs and takes action remains to be seen.

Jordan A. Klumpp is a real estate and transactional attorney with the Maryland law firm Kramon & Graham, P.A. He can be reached at jklumpp@kg-law.com.