Can I recover money damages if my pet is injured or killed?

As most people are aware, when a person is injured or killed because someone else’s negligence, a claim may be brought for personal injuries sustained. Under Maryland law, a person may include within their claim for compensation medical bills incurred, lost wages, money for pain and suffering, money for humiliation or embarrassment associated with an injury causing disfigurement and compensation for loss of consortium.

But what happens when someone’s animal gets injured or killed in a crash? The attorneys and staff at Baldwin, Briscoe & Steinmetz love dogs and own numerous dogs. We certainly can understand the pain and grief that are involved when a beloved pet is injured or dies. But what does the law have to say about that?

Traditionally under Maryland law, pets have been treated as items of personal property. This means that when an animal was injured or killed, the owner was only able to recover the market value, or replacement cost, of the animal. Traditionally, Maryland law did not permit any recover for the emotional pain and suffering that the loss of an animal could cause.

Maryland now has a statute, last amended in 2017, which provides that in the event of an injury to a pet, the owner may recover the reasonable cost of veterinary care. If the pet dies, the owner can recover the reasonable cost of veterinary care incurred prior to the death plus the replacement cost of the animal. In either event, there is a cap of $10,000 for the injury or death to a pet. (A cap is a limit on what a party may recover. Caps are laws that part of the normal legislative process.)

The statute does not provide for any recovery for the emotional distress or grief associated with injury to a pet or the loss of a pet. These types of damages are what lawyers call non-economic damages. In drafting the statute, the legislature neither specifically provided for such non-economic damages nor did they prohibit the recovery of damages for emotional distress, thus creating some ambiguity in the law. Those issues were addressed recently in a case before the Maryland Court of Appeals.

In Anne Arundel Co. v. Michael Reeves, 474 Md. 46 (2021), there were two issues before the court: (1) whether the statute referenced above was meant to exclude other types of compensation to pet owners and (2) whether there was sufficient evidence of gross negligence in the case.

Mr. Reeves’ dog was shot and killed by an Anne Arundel Co. police officer during the course of the officer’s duties. At trial the jury returned a verdict in excess of $1 million in favor of Mr. Reeves. That verdict was reduced by the court to $207,500. At the time of the trial, Maryland had a cap on damages against local officials for torts of $200,000 (now $400,000). Maryland also had a cap on damages for an injury to a pet of $7,500 (now $10,000). The intermediate appellate court held that the statute did not bar Mr. Reeves from recovering non-economic damages as a result of the death of his dog.

The Court of Appeals reversed and determined that non-economic damages are not permitted under the statute, thus significantly reducing the verdict. The Court of Appeals based its holding on the “plain meaning” of the statute, which stated: “‘[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.’…”

The Court held that because “compensatory damages” was specifically defined to include “the fair market value of the pet before death” and “the reasonable and necessary cost of veterinary care”, that the court would not look behind that definition. The Court held that the legislature intended to limit what damages were permissible by statute and it sought to uphold that intent.

The Court also based its ruling in part on the fact that Maryland statute limiting non-economic damages for personal injury, the statue specifically includes such categories of damages as mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, loss of society, companionship, comfort, protection, and care. The court implied that if the legislature intended for these types of damages to be available for the loss of a pet, it would have specifically listed them in the statute. The court also reasoned that it would be nonsensical to cap economic damages at only $10,000 and not provide a cap for non-economic damages arising out of the same facts.

At the end of the day, the court reduced the damages awarded to $7,500 consistent with the cap that was in effect at the time of the incident.

Judge Hotten wrote a dissent in this case. A dissent is not part of the law but allows a judge who disagrees with the ruling to express their reasoning. Sometimes dissents will later become law if the court adopts its reasoning in a later case. The dissent began by nothing that generally a party cannot recover non-economic damages for property loss caused by another’s negligence. The dissent argued that pets killed or injured with gross negligence should permit the recovery of emotional damages. The dissent made a policy argument basically explaining that pets should be treated differently than inanimate objects.

The dissent also points out an anomaly that an individual could be criminally prosecuted for neglecting a pet, but only civilly liable for damages not exceeding $10,000 if they kill someone else’s pet. The dissent cited as examples, a number of courts in other states which have permitted recover for emotional harm resulting from the death of a pet.

So, in summary, a person who loses a pet because of someone’s negligence can recover money damages, but those money damages are going to be limited to the reasonable cost of veterinary care prior to the death of the animal plus the replacement cost of the animal. As for your heartbreak, unfortunately there will be no compensation allowed.