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Limits on Compensatory Damages for Tortious Injury Death of Pet

August 11, 2021 By Robert S. Morter

In a recently published opinion construing Maryland’s cap on compensatory damages (Md. Code Ann. Courts & Judicial Proceedings §11-110), the Maryland Court of Appeals in Anne Arundel Co. v. Reeves (No. 68, September Term, 2019) reversed a $207,500 damages award in favor of the Plaintiff arising out of the grossly negligent police shooting of a family pet and ordered that the trial court reduce the verdict to the then-existing statutory cap, $7,500.  The current iteration of the statute provides for a maximum recovery of $10,000.

At trial, Plaintiff Reeves proceeded against Anne Arundel County and its police officer, Defendant Rodney Price, on several theories of liability: (1) trespass to chattel; (2) state law constitutional claims for unlawful destruction and seizure of his dog, and (3) gross negligence. Reeves, who was uninjured during the incident, claimed emotional distress damages for the loss of the pet.

The jury found against the County on the trespass to chattel and gross negligence counts, but did not find any violation of Reeves’ constitutional rights.  The verdict, before remittitur by the trial court, was $1,260,000.00.  On appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appellate court affirmed the award of non-economic damages and relied upon Brooks v. Jenkins, 220 Md.App. 444 (2014)(another case involving the police shooting of a family pet) for the proposition that the pet damages cap did not limit damages for emotional distress. 

However, in reaching its result in Reeves, the Court of Special Appeals did not really address a significant distinction between the two cases, the finding of a constitutional violation in Brooks as the predicate for upholding non-economic damages in that case.  On its review, the Court of Appeals had no problem swatting aside Brooks as inapposite to the facts in Reeves.  Relying upon the “plain meaning” rule of statutory construction, it found that the pet damages cap applied and absolutely limited compensatory damages (which include non-economic damages) to the statutory maximum in the absence of other claims that would permit them.

In its opinion, the Court also discussed the “one recovery” rule, and explained that Reeves was entitled to but one recovery notwithstanding his stand alone claim for gross negligence in addition to trespass to chattel.  Thus, because all of his claims arose out of the death of his dog, which constituted a single set of operative facts, his damages were limited to those provided by the pet damages cap.

Recognizing the fact that many people consider their companion animals as part of the family and that the emotional toll of the loss of a pet can be significant, the Court issued a lengthy opinion explaining its rationale, and suggested that it is the legislature’s job to modify the law should it see fit to do so.  It likely also recognized that the flood gates would open for claims against veterinary healthcare providers had it not enforced the statute as written.