For nearly all of legal history, pet animals have been treated as property items with little value. People who filed lawsuits over an injury to, or the death of a pet were limited to recovering the actual market value of the animal, and could not recover compensation for the emotional pain they suffered after a beloved pets loss. Maryland’s state statutes limited pet owners to recovering $7,500 for the veterinary bills and other injuries suffered by their animals.
The state of that law has changed in Maryland, thanks to a new ruling by the Court of Special Appeals (CSA). This month, the CSA upheld a jury verdict which awarded more than $200,000 in damages for the emotional distress a family suffered after a police officer shot their chocolate Labrador retriever. This historic change to legal doctrine may now allow pet owners to recover full compensation for the emotional loss they suffered after the death or injury of a companion animal.
Background of Brooks v. Jenkins
In 2010, police went to the home of Roger and Sandra Jenkins to serve an arrest warrant on their 18-year-old son, Jared. A camera in Deputy Timothy Brooks car recorded the deputies attempting to serve the warrant.
When Mr. Jenkins answered the door, he attempted to cooperate, and tried to move the family dogs to an outside kennel. What happened next is disputed, but the result was that Deputy Brooks shot and wounded the family’s chocolate lab. When the Jenkinses left to take the dog to the vet for treatment, the deputies entered the house and arrested the son.
The Jenkinses filed a lawsuit against the deputies alleging several types of wrongdoing by the police, including a claim for the unlawful destruction of their property (the dog, Brandi). The Jenkinses claimed that Deputy Brooks’s actions in shooting the dog were grossly negligent and unlawfully deprived the family of their property in violation of the Maryland state constitution.
After a trial, a jury awarded the Jenkinses $620,000 in damages, which was later reduced to $607,500. For the shooting of the dog specifically, the jury awarded both Roger and Sandra Jenkins $10,000 in economic (or actual) damages, and $100,000 in non-economic (or emotional) damages, for a total of $220,000 in damages related to their pet.
Deputies Appeal Jury Decision to the CSA
The deputies involved in the shooting appealed the jury’s verdict to the CSA on multiple issues, and claimed that Maryland law limited the Jenkinses to a total of $7,500 for the loss of their pet.
The Jenkinses argued that the jury’s verdict should be upheld, based on the violation of their state constitutional and civil rights. Several animal rights groups filed supporting briefs supporting the Jenkinses with the appellate court, and informed the CSA about allegations of rampant animal cruelty on the part of Maryland police officers.
In reviewing the case, the CSA looked at two important issues: Whether the jury was correct in finding that the Jenkinses constitutional rights were violated, and whether the jury’s award of non-economic damages should be upheld.
Issue #1: The Jenkinses State Constitutional Rights Were Violated
Articles 24 and 26 of the Maryland State Constitution say that citizens of the state may file a lawsuit seeking damages when a person is deprived of either their liberty or their property interests. Brandi, the Jenkinses chocolate lab, was a property interest protected by the states constitution.
The jury found that Deputy Brooks actions were grossly negligent, and that shooting the dog violated their state civil rights. Gross negligence means that the wrongdoer acted with reckless disregard for the property rights of others. The CSA defined gross negligence by stating that a wrongdoer is guilty of gross negligence or acts wantonly and willfully only when he inflicts injury intentionally or is so utterly indifferent to the rights of others that he acts as if such rights did not exist.
The Court found that the jury had more than enough evidence to believe that Deputy Brooks actions were grossly negligent. The videotape showed that Brandi did not approach Deputy Brooks quickly or in an aggressive manner, but had walked up to him with her tail wagging. As she approached him looking to be friendly, Deputy Brooks coldly shot her in the chest. The jury’s reasoning that the officer was not threatened by the dog, but shot her without provocation, justified the verdict.
Once the CSA determined the jury’s verdict was correct, the issue turned to how much money the Jenkinses should receive in damages.
Issue #2: The Violation of The Jenkinses Constitutional Rights Justified Damages For Emotional Distress
When a person wins damages in a lawsuit, they can be classified in two ways: economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages can be measured things like doctors bills, veterinarian bills, or quantifiable damages. In contrast, non-economic damages are not easily measured, and generally consist of compensation for claims like emotional distress and loss of companionship.
The CSA decided that there was no logical reason to make a distinction between property damage to a vase and property damage to a family pet.
Maryland state statute §11-110 says that pets and companion animals are considered types of property, and that damages for injury to this property are capped at $7,500. Deputy Brooks argued that this cap means that the Jenkinses could only recover $7,500 total for the shooting of their chocolate lab, and not the $220,000 the jury awarded. The CSA first looked at the types of damages the jury awarded. Both Sandra and Roger Jenkins received $10,000 each for the economic injuries to their property. Put another way, $10,000 each to cover Brandi’s veterinary bills. Under the statute, the court reduced this part of their awards to one payment of $7,500.
The CSA next considered the $200,000 the Jenkinses received in non-economic damages for their pain and suffering after their dog was shot. The CSA decided that the $7,500 limitation only applied to the economic damages they could receive for the value of the animal, and did not limit other types of compensation they could receive, like non-economic damages for their emotional distress.
The Jenkinses proved that Deputy Brooks violated their Maryland Constitutional rights by acting with gross negligence to deprive them of their property (their dog). The Maryland constitution allows the Jenkinses to recover damages for more than just the actual value of their property, and according to the CSA, the statutes $7,500 cap for economic damages was not intended to limit the broader constitutional rights the state of Maryland provides its citizens. The Jenkinses were still allowed to recover other types of damages, like non-economic damages for emotional distress, if they proved their claim to a jury.
The CSA compared the law to a hypothetical situation where the deputy fired at the dog, missed, and hit an expensive vase. In that case, the Jenkinses could have recovered both economic damages (the actual value of the vase) and non-economic damages (damages for the emotional distress they suffered as a result of the deputy shooting into their house). The CSA decided that there was no logical reason to make a distinction between property damage to a vase and property damage to a family pet. Since the Jenkinses proved to a jury that they suffered significant emotional distress as a result of the deputy’s negligent actions, the CSA upheld the jury’s $200,000 award for emotional distress.
What Does This Mean For Future Lawsuits?
It remains to be seen if this case will be appealed to Maryland’s highest court for review, or if it is, whether this decision will be upheld. Unless this decision is overturned, however, this decision may have broad implications for many types of lawsuits.
Negligent injuries can occur in all kinds of ways: auto accidents, defective products, dangerous premises, and willful, unlawful behavior can all be a reason to file a lawsuit. The CSA’s decision may allow the families of pets who were negligently injured or killed to file lawsuits seeking payments for the emotional damages they suffered, which would have been impractical when an owners recovery was limited to $7,500. Now, the family dog who is injured by a drunk driver may become the basis of a lawsuit even if no humans were harmed in the accident.
Only time will tell how this decision will change Maryland’s legal landscape. At Goldberg Finnegan, our attorneys stay up-to-date on the latest legal news to make sure that your lawsuit contains claims for all the types of compensation to which you are entitled after an accident. If you or your loved one has been harmed by someone else’s negligence, the personal injury attorneys D.C. at Goldberg Finnegan are here for you. Call (888) 213-8140 or use our case evaluation form for a free review of your claim today.