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Maryland Court Considers Damages to Injury for a Pet

February 12, 2015 By Gerald W. Ueckermann, Jr.

What damages can a dog owner recover if their pet is tortiously injured?  That question was recently considered by Maryland’s intermediate appellate court in Brooks v. Jenkins.  In Brooks, two Frederick County sheriff deputies went to the home of Roger and Sandra Jenkins with a warrant to arrest their son.  After the deputies arrived, Mr. Jenkins began to move the family’s dogs from the house to an outside kennel.  While outside, one of the dogs, a chocolate Labrador Retriever named Brandi, walked along the side of the house and approached Deputy Brooks with her tail wagging.  Deputy Brooks, feeling threatened, removed his gun from its holster and fired a bullet into Brandi’s chest, which left a large exit wound.  Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins rushed to the aid of their wounded dog, which they immediately took to a veterinarian.  While they were gone, the deputies searched the house and found and arrested the Jenkins’ son.  Although Brandi suffered a serious gunshot wound, she was nursed back to health after the Jenkinses incurred veterinarian bills of $15,000.

The Jenkinses later filed suit against Deputy Brooks and his partner.  They alleged that Deputy Brooks committed a trespass to chattel and that he violated their rights under Article 24 of the Maryland Constitution when he shot Brandi.  They further alleged that both deputies illegally entered their house, thereby violating their constitutional rights and committing a trespass.

The jury found that Deputy Brooks had acted with gross negligence, but not malice, when he shot Brandi and that he committed a constitutional tort and common law trespass.  It awarded Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins $20,000 in economic damages and $200,000 in noneconomic damages for the shooting.  It also awarded the Jenkinses $400,000 against both deputies for committing a common law trespass by entering their home.

Maryland Code, CJ § 11-110, caps the compensatory damages that are recoverable for the death or injury of a pet to a total of $7,500.

On appeal, Deputy Brooks argued that the award of $220,000 related to the shooting of Brandi should be reduced to $7,500.  The Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed that the award of $20,000 for economic damages related to the shooting of Brandi should be reduced to $7,500, but it found that the award of $200,000 for noneconomic damages sustained by the Jenkinses should not be reduced.  In doing so, it found that the cap in § 11-110 applies to veterinarian bills sustained as a result of the injury to a pet (and the lost value of the pet, if it dies), but not to other noneconomic damages that a pet owner suffers as a result of an injury to their pet.  Since Deputy Brooks had committed a constitutional tort, the award of $200,000 on noneconomic damages related to the shooting of Brandi was upheld.

The court, however, went on to vacate the award of $400,000 against the deputies for their alleged common law trespass of the Jenkins’ house.  In doing so, the court found that in order to recover for mental anguish for property damage arising from a common law tort, the jury must find that the wrongful conduct of the defendant was motivated by malice.  Since the jury found that the deputies had only acted with gross negligence when they trespassed, the Jenkinses could not recover for mental suffering related to the trespass.

Based on the court’s opinion in Brooks v. Jenkins, any defendant, regardless of whether they are a public official or private citizen, who maliciously injures a pet will be liable to the pet owner for the mental suffering that results. A public official who commits a constitutional tort that injures a pet will be liable to a pet owner for mental suffering related to the injury of their pet.  Neither a public official nor a private citizen who negligently injures a pet will be liable for mental anguish-type injuries.

It is uncertain if Maryland’s highest court would agree with the holding of Brooks v. Jenkins.  Nevertheless, reportedly no petition was filed with the Maryland Court of Appeals requesting that it review the decision.