In a rather bizarre case, a Maryland family was awarded $1.23 million for the wrongful death of their Chesapeake Bay retriever who was shot “unnecessarily” by an Anne Arundel County Police Department officer.
Claims involving injury or death of family dogs has been an emerging trend across the U.S. lately. When these actions are filed in a state court, the claim is known as “trespass to chattels”. When these actions are filed in a federal court, the claim is commonly a violation of Fourth Amendment rights for seizure. This type of tort is based on a loss or seizure of personal transportable property.
What About Governmental Immunity?
Civil suits, which have recently been brought against local governments for officers shooting dogs, have largely been filed in federal courts. The defendants are likely to seek to dismiss the case through summary judgment based on qualified immunity. In some cases, police officers are deemed eligible for governmental immunity when claims include civil rights violations, even if the acts were unlawful, particularly if no case law exists on the topic. There have been approximately six U.S. Court of Appeals decisions where officers who shot dogs were found to be essentially seizing the property of the owner based on the Fourth Amendment.
Unique Aspects of These Cases
The Insurance Information Institute reports that there are an estimated 89 million dogs owned as pets throughout U.S. households. Roughly half of U.S. households have a dog as a pet, and many others are fond of them also, which could influence jurors.
Attorney Scott MacLatchie explained that the best course of defense action is to prove the officer was rightfully on the property and the act of shooting was reasonable based on the situation. Essentially, this defense is that based on the circumstances, the officer feared for his or her safety and chose to use deadly force. Further, if the officer's entry to the property is executed legally, then a seizure based on reasonable circumstances should be justified. MacLatchie stressed that it is critical for an officer to properly complete documentation and to explain the reason that they chose to shoot.
Awards for Damages
Based on recent case outcomes, when a jury rules in the plaintiff's favor, settlements can reach the $50,000 mark and in some cases exceed $100,000. Instances have arisen where the legal fees in the case exceed the award; however, in civil rights actions in federal courts, the defendant is then responsible for the plaintiff's legal fees. An award of punitive damages is possible when it is determined that the officer was reckless, indifferent, or acted with malice. Mildred O'Linn, a defense attorney in Los Angeles, explained that if the law enforcement agency acts compassionately toward the matter, they will have the best results and minimize anger among citizens.