Raising a Paw to Recent Animal Law Efforts in Maryland

by Pessin Katz Law, P.A.
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Pessin Katz Law, P.A.

Whoever said that a diamond is a girl’s best friend never had a dog. Within the first few minutes of every conversation, professional or personal, the person I am speaking with always casually, or sometimes intentionally, mentions their beloved dog, cat, horse, you name it, then proceeds to whip out his or her smart phone to display hundreds of almost identical photos. Personally, this is reassuring because I now know that I am not the only “dog-lover.” So in honor of our four-legged companions, I am pleased with Maryland’s efforts to pass stricter laws for animal cruelty, assist shelters taking in abused animals, and increase the standards for shelters and pet stores.

Although almost all animal-lovers know that there is no value to the life of a pet, a person (either individually or through their animal) who tortiously causes injury to or the death of one’s pet is liable to the pet’s owner for compensatory damages, not to exceed $10,000.00. This is a significant increase from the previous statutory cap of $7,500.00.The statute applies to injuries caused by you or your pet. For example, it applies similarly if your dog escapes your yard and injures a dog in another yard or if you are negligently speeding and injure your neighbor’s dog. If the pet dies as a result of the injury, compensatory damages are equal to the fair market value of the pet. This creates an interesting conflict for “show dogs” or “designer” breeds. As every dog has its day, each and every insured that has a pet should make sure that they have insurance to cover such liability.

The Maryland General Assembly also enacted legislation to clarify the conduct that constitutes animal abuse. Many people may think that since they do not physically strike their pet, they are free from criminal liability. This is far from the truth. A person can now be guilty of animal abuse or neglect if they fail to provide the animal with proper air, space, shelter, or protection from the weather. This is especially important for the hot summer months and cold winter months. On a breezy 78-degree day, the temperature inside a parked car can soar to 100 degrees in just a few minutes. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. A person that mutilates, tortures, maliciously beats, or kills an animal could be guilty of aggravated cruelty. Additionally, the legislature established the Animal Abuse Emergency Compensation Fun to assist paying cost associated with the removal and care of animals seized under the State’s animal abuse and neglect laws.

The law is beginning to recognize the important role that veterinarians play in protecting animals both in and out of the office. Veterinarians who suspect animal cruelty, including suspected animal fighting, with respect to an animal which they are treating, must file a report with local law enforcement or the county animal control agency. If a veterinarian fails to comply with the reporting requirement, he or she may face licensing penalties, including suspension and revocation. Notably, a veterinarian who reports suspected animal cruelty or animal fighting in good faith, or who participates in a subsequent investigation, is immune from civil liability and criminal prosecution that results from the report or participation in the investigation.

While vets have these new reporting requirements, they and others who rescue animals (including fire fighters, law enforcement and animal control officers) will now have immunity, under certain circumstances, when they provide emergency veterinary aid, care, or assistance to an animal where the owner of the animal is not available. Veterinarians and others who are good Samaritans will have immunity from civil liability if (1) they are not grossly negligent; (2) they are giving free aid, care, or assistance; and (3) the aid, care, or assistance is provided at the scene of an emergency or in transit to a veterinary facility.

And let’s not forget pet stores. Many of us may have childhood memories of going to the pet store with our parents “just to look” or to see if that one dog was still there. Recent laws alter the recordkeeping requirements for a retail pet store to include the name and address of the animal control unit or animal welfare organization, if applicable. The bill broadens the existing prohibition against a retail pet store buying a dog or cat from a breeder unless the retail pet store has ensured that the breeder or dealer has not received specified types of citations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the federal Animal Welfare Act in the last two years. If a dog is obtained from a breeder or dealer, a retail pet store must post the applicable USDA final inspection reports from the previous two years on or near the dog’s cage. The reports must be retained by the retail pet store for at least two years.

So for all those animal lovers out there, rest assured that Maryland is doing its part to protect our four-legged friends, help them get to safe homes, and be free from abuse. However, as a pet owner, you need to be alert and informed as to your responsibilities and the potential liability that ownership carries. While there are pet-insurance options, there may be pre-existing conditions or other restrictions that may limit your claim. How much piece of mind are you getting if you don’t fully understand your policy? Pet owners frequently rely on their homeowner’s policies to protect them from liability, but will it? We can help if you have any questions, or just want to show us a picture of your best friend.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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