December 17, 2014

Great day for pets in Maryland – Maryland Court of Special Appeals Recognizes Emotional Value of Pets

Despite Maryland’s progressive stance on many social issues, love and respect of pets, particularly dogs, has not been high on the list.

Until today, MD Code § 11-110 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article has been understood by attorneys to cap money damages on tortious injury to pets to a maximum of $7,500, no matter how outrageous the tortious conduct, and no matter how important a pet is to an owner or a family.

Most pet owners- in Maryland or not – agree that it would be utterly impossible to place a monetary value on a pet’s companionship and love. But pet owners would likely agree that the pet’s value, if we had to place a value, would be exceptionally high; some would say as high as a human family member.

Yet, Maryland has historically treated family pets no differently than an inanimate possession, or in some cases, even worse than inanimate objects, cattle or other livestock (which can at least be valued above $7,500 if purchased for more than $7,500). But for loved dogs in Maryland, by law, the damage value could not exceed $7,500. Until today.

Thanks to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the general rule has now changed. It unfortunately took an outrageous act to provoke the decision.

The case, Brooks v. Jenkins, concerned the January 9, 2010, shooting of Brandi, a 7-year old chocolate Labrador retriever by Frederick County sheriff’s deputies. As widely publicized at the time, the deputies were at the home of the Jenkins family to serve a warrant on their son. As widely watched on the deputy’s dash cam (warning – deeply upsetting images), the dog, Brandi, is seen happily wagging and bounding toward a deputy to say hello.  The deputy, unprovoked, then pulls his weapon.  Despite Brandi stopping far from the deputy (and appearing completely friendly – and this all being caught on tape), the deputy shoots Brandi.

In an April 2012 verdict, an outraged Frederick County jury awarded the Jenkins family $620,000 in damages against the deputies for shooting their dog – primarily for non-economic damages, which means emotional harm and suffering.  This, presumably, because the Jenkins family was forced to watch their family dog get shot for no reason.  (Interestingly, in a twist of ethics, the entire Frederick county bench recused itself from the Jenkins case, presumably because the same deputies provide courtroom security for Frederick County judges.  While heard by a Frederick County jury, the case was therefore handled by a Montgomery County judge).

Frederick County appealed the verdict, arguing that under Maryland law, the Jenkins family could only recover $7,500, essentially no matter how improperly their deputy behaved, including shooting a family pet for no reason.

In a common sense decision, the Court of Special Appeals disagreed.  They found that, despite the cap on economic damages in the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, the law did not prevent a pet owner from recovering non-economic damages for witnessing harm to their loved pet.

Thus, for the first time, Maryland now recognizes that the $7,500 damage cap for dogs only applies to the physical purchase value or veterinarian care costs of the dog; not for separate claims of pain and suffering by a dog’s family who watches terrible misconduct against their loved pet.

It remains to be seen if Frederick County will continue to appeal the outrageous behavior of its deputies to the Maryland Court of Appeals, Maryland’s high court. Until and unless the Court of Appeals grants certiorari over the case, the new rule in Maryland is that dogs can have emotional, non-economic value to their owners.

Protection for our loved companions is a good thing, an item on which most of us, despite our divided politics, can agree.

About Goodwin Weber PLLC – We are a boutique law firm practicing in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and New York.  We chose Main Street, not Wall Street, for our practice.  David P. Weber is an attorney in private practice, the former Assistant Inspector General for Investigations at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, a former law clerk to a United States District Judge, and a faculty member of the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, College Park, as well as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland University College.  Julie Goodwin Weber is an attorney in private practice, with an interest in animal law, including animal estate and trust planning.  She is the former law clerk to a Judge on the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Maryland University College.