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Maryland lawmakers weigh loosening cap on damages in pet death lawsuits

Sen. Susan Lee, sponsor of the measure, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Wednesday that current law places “nonsensical limitations” on cases involving a tortious injury or death of a pet. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A proposal in the General Assembly would lift the cap on damages in lawsuits over a pet’s death or injury in certain circumstances, including when gross negligence or a constitutional violation occurred.

The bill is in response to a 2021 ruling in Maryland’s Court of Appeals that limited the financial award in a case where an Anne Arundel County police officer fatally shot a dog. The court ruled that current law caps compensatory damages at $10,000 and does not allow for noneconomic damages for a pet owner’s pain and suffering.

Sen. Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, presented a bill Wednesday that would lift the cap on compensatory damages when there is a showing of gross negligence, intent, malice, or a constitutional violation. The bill would also allow juries to award noneconomic damages in these cases.

Lee told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that current law places “nonsensical limitations” on cases involving a tortious injury or death of a pet.

Lawyer Cary J. Hansel III, who represented the owners of the dog that was shot by police in Anne Arundel County, testified in favor of the bill.

“Under current law, there is a $10,000 hard cap on pet damages in all but the rarest of circumstances,” Hansel told the committee. “That effectively means that there is immunity, because that’s not a sufficient cap to warrant the exercise of a lawyer’s time and the efforts to bring a case to fruition.”

In the Anne Arundel County case, dog owner Michael Reeves sued after his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Vern, was shot and killed by police officer Rodney Price in February 2014. Price was going door-to-door as part of a neighborhood canvass after a spate of burglaries in Glen Burnie when he knocked on Reeves’ door, according to testimony in Reeves’ civil lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

The officer claimed that he was returning to his car when he heard the screen door open and saw Reeves’ dog approach him. The dog placed his front paws on the officer, Price said, causing Price to step back, draw his gun and fire two shots, which killed the dog. Price testified that he had feared for his life.

The dog did not bite Price, and Price had no injuries on his forearm where the dog had jumped up on him. Hansel said at Wednesday’s hearing that the jury found the dog had not attacked Price and there was no justification for the shooting.

Jurors awarded Reeves $1.25 million, including $500,000 in economic damages and $750,000 in noneconomic damages for the officer’s gross negligence. The gross negligence award was reduced to $200,000 under the Local Government Tort Claims Act, and the economic damages were reduced to $7,500, which was the cap on compensatory damages before 2017.

The Court of Appeals further reduced Reeves’ award to $7,500, ruling that he could not receive damages for the gross negligence claim.

The bill faces opposition from veterinarians, who testified that loosening the cap on damages in these cases could lead to higher insurance costs, which would be passed on to customers.

“With the introduction of noneconomic damages, costs will, without question, go up,” said Dr. John Brooks, a veterinarian. “It will make it harder to work with what a client can spend.”

Kent McClure, a veterinarian who appeared on behalf of the American Veterinary Medical Association, said the bill could also lead to strange outcomes because it does not define who is considered to be a pet’s owner or clarify what pets are considered “domesticated animals.”

Lee emphasized that the bill is not intended to affect veterinarians. Hansel said veterinarians would be unlikely to face litigation under the bill because they would not harm animals intentionally or with malice.

The bill, SB 815, is cross-filed in the house at HB 1375.