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Court fails to acknowledge ‘pets are more than just living beings’ in ruling on police shooting of family dog

·3-min read
Timothy Reeves with his dog Vern, who was shot dead by an Anne Arundel County Police officer in 2014 (Facebook Justice for Vern)
Timothy Reeves with his dog Vern, who was shot dead by an Anne Arundel County Police officer in 2014 (Facebook Justice for Vern)

A judge has criticised Maryland’s highest court for failing to recognise the importance of pets to their owners in modern society, after a family was awarded just $7,500 in damages following the shooting of their dog by a police officer.

In slashing the damages given to the family – originally set at $1.26m – chief judge Mary Ellen Barbera said that “noneconomic damages, such as mental anguish and loss of companionship, are not included” in the legislation’s “exhaustive definition of compensatory damages”. 

She said that the law for the wrongful death of a pet is unlike laws governing the wrongful death of people – that allow for both economic and emotional damages.

Vern, a Chesapeake Bay retriever belonging to a family in Glen Burnie, was shot dead by an officer in 2014 who had attended the property to investigate burglaries. The officer said he feared being attacked but was found to have acted negligently in shooting the animal, after owner Michael Reeves filed a case in 2015 over the economic impact and emotional trauma to his family.  

A jury initially awarded $1.26m in damages, including the money for grief and lost wages of the owner during the court proceedings in 2017. It was then reduced by the trial judge to $207,500.

On Monday, the court further slashed the money for the Reeves family to just $7,500, an amount considerably less than their costs during the trial over the years, according to the Washington Post. The legislation has since been revised to lift the limit to $10,000.

Court of Appeals Judge Michele D Hotten dissented with the order, saying the court missed the opportunity to correct the Maryland law to suit modern sensibilities about pets.

“Our pets are more than just living beings. They are widely considered best friends, guardians, and members of the family. Maryland law should recognize and bestow pets with the same degree of dignity,” Ms Hotten argued.

The court upheld that the police officer had acted negligently and acknowledged that the owner “suffered a tragic loss”. But the court said the law does not cover money damages for pet owners and the court generally does not allow for compensation for emotional suffering from the death of a pet.

Officer Rodney Price said he shot the dog after it placed its paws on his arm, according to court filings, testifying that its paws were still on him when he shot it twice. The court heard that Vern then cried out and limped back to the neighbour’s fence before collapsing.

But veterinary expert, presented by the Reeves family, disputed the officer’s claim, saying a dog of Vern’s size could only reach up to the officer’s stomach even if standing on its hind legs.

The owner said he was devastated by the loss and moved to California after Vern died. He said Vern was “my best friend in the world, period” and that he received therapy to cope with the loss, according to court records.

Ms Hotten in her dissent said her colleagues should acknowledge pets “not just as emotive, intelligent, loving, and cherished members of our families, but as representing more than mere personal property.”

She said many Maryland lawmakers have already pointed to the contradiction in Maryland law which allows unlimited damage for the destruction of property but limited damages for the death of a pet.

Cary Hansel, attorney for the Reeves family, said he would move forward with additional lawsuits over the wrongful death of a pet.

“This dog was shot. It didn’t scratch, bite or hurt the officer in any way,” Mr Hansel said. “All of us know that it is a real and tangible loss.”

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