How much money can you get for pain and suffering when someone negligently or intentionally kills your dog? Is it $1.25 million, which is what a jury awarded, or $7,500?
In Anne Arundel County v. Reeves, No. 68 Sept. Term, 2019 (Md. June 7, 2021) the Court of Appeals weighed in on a sad case in which a police officer pointlessly shot and killed a beloved family dog in the front yard of its owners’ house. The dog’s family sued the police officer and the circuit court jury found that the officer was grossly negligent and awarded $1.25 million in damages. The COA vacated that verdict and held that under the applicable statute, pain & suffering damages for the tortious injury of a pet are not allowed. The most the family could recover for the killing of their dog was $7,500 in compensatory damages.
Facts of Anne Arundel County v. Reeves
Officer Price from the Anne Arundel County Police Department was investigating a series of burglaries in the neighborhood. As part of that investigation, Officer Price started going door-to-door at houses in the area to see if anyone saw anything. Just before 5:00 pm, he knocked on the door of Michael Reeves. Reeves had nothing to do with the burglaries and just happened to live nearby.
Police Officer Senselessly Kills Dog
When nobody answered the door Officer Price left the front porch and stood in the driveway to write in his notepad. At that point, Price turned around and saw a dog approaching him from the house. Officer Price claimed that the dog was growling and barked one time and then put his front paws on him. Officer Price claimed that he was afraid the dog was going to attack his face so he pulled out his gun and shot the dog twice. The dog made a howling, screeching noise and then limped back across the yard, collapsed, and later died.
Vern Was a Good Dog
The dog was Chesapeake Bay Retriever named “Vern.” Vern was a cherished family pet with absolutely no history of aggression towards people or other dogs. In fact, testimony at the trial suggested that Vern loved people and was overly friendly. Vern did not bite or scratch Officer Price, who made no effort to retreat off the property or vocalize any commands to Vern. Officer Price had a taser and a baton on him at the time of the incident but made no effort to use those before shooting Vern twice.
Suing the Police Officer
Reeves sued Officer Price and Anne Arundel County, filing a complaint in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. Reeves asserted 4 separate counts in his complaint: (1) trespass to chattel; (2) violation of the dog owner’s constitutional rights under Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (for shooting the dog); (3) violation of the dog owner’s constitutional rights under Article 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (unlawful seizure of the dog); and (4) gross negligence.
Jury’s Verdict and Appeal
The jury ruled for the plaintiff on both constitutional claims but awarded $0 in damages for each claim. The jury awarded $10,000 on the trepass to chattel claim. Finally, the jury again found for the plaintiff on the gross negligence claim and awarded $500,000 in economic damages and $750,000 in noneconomic damages. The trial judge reduced the trespass to chattel award to $7,500 under Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc § 11-110. Relying on the Local Government Tort Claims Act, CJP §§ 5-301 et seq., the judge reduced the gross negligence awards to $200,000.
The Court of Special Appeals affirmed in part and vacated in part. The majority held that Section 11-110 did not restrict the plaintiff’s “total available damages to the capped amount stated in the statute.
Legal Analysis of Anne Arundel County v. Reeves
The Maryland high overruled the intermediate court and held “that CJP §11-110 limits the recovery for compensatory damages to the amount specified by the statute and does not allow recovery for noneconomic damages stemming from the tortious injury or death of a pet.” The majority based this holding on a strict interpretation of the language and intent of the statute.
The COA overruled the COSA and held “that CJP §11-110 limits the recovery for compensatory damages to the amount specified by the statute and does not allow recovery for noneconomic damages stemming from the tortious injury or death of a pet.”
In her opinion, Judge Barbera found that the plain language of CJP § 11-110 made clear that noneconomic damages were not permitted:
The Court also read the statute in connection with other damage caps provisions in Title 11 of Courts and Judicial Proceedings, concluding that allowing recovery of noneconomic damages for injuring or killing a pet would lead to absurd results that were inconsistent with legislative intent.
The text evinces legislative intent to allow for certain, defined compensatory damages in the case of the tortious death or injury of a pet. Noneconomic damages, such as mental anguish and loss of companionship, are not included in the exhaustive definition of compensatory damages. As such, noneconomic damages are unavailable under the plain meaning of CJP § 11-110.
Judge Barbera also found that the legislative intent evidence supported the narrow reading of the statute. Based on this interpretation of the statute, the COA found that Mr. Reeves was only entitled to compensatory damages in the maximum amount of $7,500 as provided under CJP § 11-110.
Judge Hotten’s Dissent in Anne Arundel County v. Reeves
Judge Hotten wrote a moving dissenting opinion. Judge Hotten suggested that the court should interpret the statute more broadly so as to allow pain & suffering damages when a pet is killed or injured with gross negligence. In Judge Hotten’s view, this rule would be more consistent with the importance of pets in modern society.
Judge Hotten also noted that the decision, in this case, created several “anomalies” with respect to pets under the law:
The Majority’s decision places pets in a doubly anomalous position: they are the only type of property subject to a compensatory and non-compensatory cap. A tortfeasor may “wantonly and willfully” shoot and kill a beloved, family dog, “utterly indifferent” to the family’s emotional bond and pay no more than $10,000 in damages, while a fraudster who intentionally tricks a family into selling a painting of their dog would face uncapped compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Judge Hotten also pointed out that the majority’s decision is at odds with the current trend in other jurisdictions which have expanded the ability of pet owners to recover in tort.
I think Judge Barbera is correct on the law and legislative intent. But Judge Hotten’s opinion is the future and, hopefully, Maryland will craft a new law with 2021 sensibilities about the importance of dogs and other pets in our lives.