It took an Anne Arundel County jury just 90 minutes to award $1.26 million in compensatory damages for the fatal police shooting of Vern, a six-year-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever. Four years later, the Court of Appeals reduced that judgment to $7,500 after finding that Md. Code Cts. & Jud. Proc. (CJP) § 11-110 set a cap on economic damages and “does not allow for recovery of noneconomic compensatory damages stemming from the tortious injury or death of a pet.” Anne Arundel Co. v. Reeves (Sept. Term 2019, No. 68) (June 7, 2021), Slip Op. at 2. One member of the Court took issue with the result, complaining that foreclosing recovery for the pet owner’s pain and suffering “dredges up the law’s ignominious history of treating living beings, notably slaves and women, as property not legal persons.” Id. Dissenting Op. (Hotten, J.) at 13.
While going door-to-door to investigate a series of burglaries, a police officer encountered Vern in the driveway of a house occupied by Vern’s owner, Michael Reeves. The officer feared that Vern was about to attack because he growled, barked once, and placed his paws on the officer’s arms. Rather than use the taser, baton, or mace he was carrying, the officer shot twice. Id. Majority Op. at 3–4. Reeves later filed a 13-count complaint seeking compensatory and punitive damages against the officer and his employer.
Reeves testified at trial that he purchased Vern as a puppy for $3,000, and intended to breed him. Reeves took a year off to train Vern, “my best friend in the world.” Id. at 7. Reeves and his sons testified that Vern was part of the family, and that after the shooting Reeves was distraught, unable to work, and took medication to cope with a loss that “just destroyed him.” Id.
Four counts of Reeves’ complaint reached the jury: (1) trespass to chattel; (2) violation of Reeves’ constitutional rights under Article 24 (taking property without due process) and (3) Article 26 (warrantless seizure of property) of the Maryland Declaration of Rights; and (4) gross negligence. The trial court granted a defense motion for judgment on questions of actual malice and punitive damages, which left the jury to consider compensatory damages only. Id. at 7–8.
The jury returned a plaintiff’s verdict on all four counts. It awarded $10,000 in economic damages on the trespass count, and $500,000 in economic damages for the officer’s gross negligence. The jury also awarded $750,000 for noneconomic damages on the negligence count. Despite making affirmative findings that the officer violated rights guaranteed by Articles 24 and 26, the jury awarded $0 for these claims, which in retrospect may have been the most consequential of all of its findings.
The trial court reduced the $10,000 trespass judgment to $7,500, the ceiling imposed at the time by CJP § 11-110 on economic damages for tortious injury to a pet. The judge also reduced the combined $1.25 million award for gross negligence to $200,000, the statutory cap under the Local Government Tort Claims Act. Id. at 9.
The defendants appealed, arguing that under CJP § 11-110, a pet owner could only recover economic damages for tortious injury to the pet, and that those damages were capped at $7,500. A divided Court of Special Appeals disagreed, citing Brooks v. Jenkins, 220 Md. App. 444 (2014), for the proposition that the statute is not a bar to recovery for noneconomic damages when the tortfeasor was grossly negligent.
The Court of Appeals read Brooks and CJP § 11-110 quite differently. The majority viewed this as a straightforward question of statutory construction that simply required it to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the Legislature by looking at the plain meaning of the words in the statue and, if clear, unambiguous and in harmony with the general legislative scheme, end its inquiry there, without resort to subsidiary rules of construction. Id. at 11. In their opinion, the legislative intent was clear from the words CJP § 11-110:
(a) Definitions. — (1) In this section the following words have the meanings indicated.
(2) “Compensatory damages” means:
(i) In the case of the death of a pet, the fair market value of the pet before death and the reasonable and necessary cost of veterinary care; and
(ii) In the case of an injury to a pet, the reasonable and necessary cost of veterinary care.
(3) (i) “Pet” means a domesticated animal.
(ii) “Pet” does not include livestock.
(b) Measure of damages. — (1) A person who tortiously causes an injury to or death of a pet while acting individually or through an animal under the person’s direction or control is liable to the owner of the pet for compensatory damages.
(2) The damages awarded under paragraph (1) of this subsection may not exceed $7,500.
Reeves argued that “given the statute’s unique definition of compensatory damages, the damages cap pertains only to reasonable and necessary veterinary care expenses and the pet’s fair market value [and] that nothing in the statute expressly limits the recovery of other possible types of damages, including pain and suffering or lost wages.” Id. at 13. The Court disagreed, applying the “long accepted…doctrine of expressio (or inclusio) unius est exclusio alterius, or the expression of one thing is the exclusion of another.” Id. at 14.
The Legislature said that “compensatory” damages “means” two things: (1) the fair market value of the pet; and (2) the cost of veterinary care. The use of the word “means,” the Court concluded (with support from the Maryland Style Manual for Statutory Laws), means that the Legislature intended the definition to be all-inclusive. Id.
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. The statute goes on to limit the recovery of damages under the statute to the capped amount. CJP § 11-110(b)(2).
The Court found support for this reading of CJP § 11-110 by comparing it to Maryland’s Wrongful Death Statute, which expressly provided for the recovery of both economic and noneconomic damages, and further defined “noneconomic damages” to “mean” mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, loss of society, companionship . . . or other noneconomic damages authorized under Title 3, Subtitle 9 of this article.” Id. at 15, quoting § CJP 11-108(a)(2)(i). The pet statute, in contrast, made no mention whatsoever of noneconomic damages.
The Court further observed that the Wrongful Death Statute placed a cap on noneconomic damages for the loss of a spouse, child or parent, while the $7,500 cap under CJP § 11-110 by its terms applied only to the pet’s market value and the vet bill. If, as Reeves argued, the cap did not also apply to noneconomic damages, “the statute would allow, for example, for the recovery of millions of dollars in uncapped noneconomic damages in a case involving veterinary malpractice, while noneconomic damages in a medical malpractice case remain capped. To read CJP § 11-110 in this way would produce absurd results. Id. at 16. “One such result would be that a pet owner could recover noneconomic damages for the death of a pet, while that same person could not receive such damages for the loss of a best friend, sibling, fiancé(e), or grandparent.” Id., n. 7.
This left the Court to deal with the Court of Special Appeals’ decision in Brooks, which also involved the police shooting of a dog. In Brooks, the intermediate appellate court affirmed an award for noneconomic damages in favor of the pet owner for a violation of rights guaranteed by Articles 24 and 26 of the Declaration of Rights, the very provisions that the Reeves’ jury found had been violated, but for which it made no monetary award. The Court of Special Appeals in Brooks held that CJP § 11-110 “does not limit the [owners’] total recovery for the constitutional tort to the capped value of their pet’s vet bills.” Id. at 20, quoting Brooks, 220 Md. App. at 471.
The Court of Appeals dismissed the comparison: “Here, CJP § 11-110 did not work to cap Mr. Reeves’ constitutional claim damages to the value of veterinary bills or Vern’s fair market value. Rather, the jury awarded no damages at all for those claims….As a result, the analysis of Brooks is inapposite, and the only injury for which Mr. Reeves can recover is the death of his dog, which is limited to the capped amount in CJP § 11-110.” Id. (footnote omitted). Under this analysis, it was arguably the manner in which the jury reported its verdict rather than the amount awarded that doomed Reeves’ recovery. Had it valued the violation of Reeves’ constitutional rights at $1.25 million, it appears as though some of it might have survived.
The Court likewise left open the possibility that pet owners can recover punitive damages for tortious harm done to their pets, noting that CJP § 11-110 refers only to compensatory damages and “by its own terms, does not address punitive damages, and they are also not at issue in this case. Also not at issue here is the exception to the common law rule that allows for certain forms of noneconomic damages when property is damaged by a tortfeasor whose acts are ‘inspired by fraud, malice, or like motives.’” Id. at 18, n. 9 (citation omitted).
The majority was respectful of a strongly worded dissent that decried the Court’s unwillingness to reassess Maryland common law “that continues to treat cherished family pets as mere chattel.” Id., Dissent Slip Op. at 1.The majority concluded, however, that “[t]he issue in this case is not whether our common law is or should be in line with modern sensibilities regarding pets,” but whether the Legislature thinks that it should be. Id., Majority Op. at 21.The Legislature apparently does not yet think so.