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A dog named Vern was fatally shot by police. But compensation for his death will be limited.

Chesapeake Bay retriever Vern was shot and killed by an Anne Arundel County police officer in 2014, leading to a court case over monetary damages tied to the loss of a pet. (Family photo)

Dog adoptions surged in the dark days of the coronavirus pandemic, with families stuck at home taking in new furry friends as a source of comfort and companionship.

But Maryland’s high court turned down an effort this week to treat pets as more than property in the case of a brown Chesapeake Bay retriever named Vern who was shot and killed by a police officer in his family’s driveway.

In a lengthy dissent, one judge said the court had missed an opportunity to interpret the law more in line with 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,” Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Michele D. Hotten wrote.

Vern was shot twice in 2014 when an officer investigating burglaries in a residential neighborhood in Anne Arundel County feared he would be attacked by the dog.

The court majority affirmed that the police officer had acted negligently and acknowledged that the owner “suffered a tragic loss.” But the court said the law clearly limits money damages a pet owner can recover in court and generally does not allow for compensation for emotional suffering from the death of a pet.

“Noneconomic damages, such as mental anguish and loss of companionship, are not included” in the law’s “exhaustive definition of compensatory damages,” according to the opinion, written by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and joined by five others.

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“If the Legislature intended to compensate pet owners for noneconomic damages” associated with the death of pets “it would have stated so plainly,” the court said.

Hotten, in her dissent, called on her colleagues to “recognize pets, not just as emotive, intelligent, loving, and cherished members of our families, but as representing more than mere personal property.”

Police shootings involving dogs are not uncommon. Earlier this month, Prince George’s County’s police chief suspended two officers and placed a third on leave after the shooting of a dog inside a Hyattsville-area apartment. The pet was critically injured and later euthanized, according to officials.

In 2011, the county settled a lawsuit brought by the mayor of Berwyn Heights after a county SWAT team stormed his home looking for drugs and fatally shot the family’s two black Labradors.

David S. Favre, a Michigan State University law professor, said he agrees with the dissenting judge that it’s time for the law to acknowledge that pets are not just property, but that the court majority got it right.

“The legislature has tied their hands and they are limited to interpret the statute — not create new law,” he said in an email.

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In the Maryland case, a jury awarded Vern’s owner, Michael H. Reeves, nearly $1.3 million in 2017, a figure that was reduced by the trial judge to $207,500.

The appeals court decision, published Monday, limits Reeves’s compensation to what was then the legislative cap of $7,500 — an amount that does not cover his trial costs. The legislature has since lifted the limit to $10,000, and the court’s decision left open the possibility that, in other cases, pet owners with constitutional claims could recover greater money damages.

A group of Maryland veterinarians and pet owners had cautioned the appeals court against allowing emotion-based damages, in a brief submitted in support of the county’s position. If owners can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, the group said, the overall cost of pet health care, products and other services will rise.

At trial the police officer, Rodney Price, testified that the dog approached him outside the Reeves’s home as he was investigating burglaries in the area. The dog growled, barked and placed its front paws on his forearm. He told the jury he was afraid the dog would attack his face.

Price, who had been on the police force for less than a year, testified that he shot the dog twice while the dog’s paws were still on his left arm. The dog made a screeching noise, limped across the yard, collapsed and curled up beneath a neighbor’s fence, according to the court opinion.

A veterinary expert hired by Reeves contradicted Price, in a deposition presented to the jury. A dog of Vern’s size, and at 75 pounds, could only reach a person’s mid-stomach while standing on hind legs, the doctor said.

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Reeves purchased Vern for $3,000 as a puppy in 2009 with the goal of eventually breeding Chesapeake Bay retrievers. He took a year off from work to train the dog, teaching Vern voice commands, silent commands and water training, the opinion states.

The shooting devastated Reeves, who became interested in training dogs while working as a contractor in Afghanistan. Reeves testified that Vern was “my best friend in the world, period.” He moved to California after Vern was killed and was taking medication to cope with the loss, according to court records.

The officer left the department in March 2020, a move unrelated to the incident, a police spokesman said Wednesday. The incident, however, prompted additional training for officers on dealing with animals.

Kathy Hessler, an animal law expert at the Lewis & Clark Law School, said the majority opinion “is stuck in the status quo” even as the law has evolved in its recognition of animals as property distinct from inanimate objects.

All states have felony animal cruelty laws. Some estate laws now include provisions for animals when an owner dies and others deal with what happens to companion animals when owners divorce.

Reeves’s lawyer Cary Hansel said the law in Maryland, and in many states, is out of step and called on the state legislature to make changes to allow for recovery of emotional damages in all cases.

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

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