Pets that kill pets stir Md. legislation

January 27, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

Puddy was the lucky one, a tough old cat that survived a vicious attack by two Jack Russell terriers in her Bethesda neighborhood.

The same two dogs killed three felines, Gentle Ben, Boy and Katzchen. Now the victims' owners want action from the state legislature.

At a Senate hearing in Annapolis yesterday, the cat owners testified for a bill that would allow people to sue for big money if their pets are maimed or killed by vicious dogs or other animals.

To be specific, the legislation would enable pet owners to sue for their own pain and suffering, along with punitive damages.

If it passes, Maryland would be the first state to allow such damages by statute, said Roger W. Galvin, an attorney for the cat owners.

As a result of court decisions, rather than legislation, New York and some other states allow pet owners to make those claims.

Opponents say the bill would encourage an already litigious society to settle neighborhood disputes in courtrooms rather than living rooms.

When the hearing opened, a few legislators seemed a bit skeptical.

Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., a white-haired veteran legislator from the Eastern Shore, had a problem with the bill's mechanics. "How are you going to get the dog to testify?" he asked.

He was assured that people, not pets, would be the ones telling the court about their own pain at the loss of a "companion animal."

The bill's backers, with at times tearful and graphic tales of animal suffering, say this may be the only way to get negligent people to control their vicious pets.

Joseph Laitin, a former war correspondent and spokesman for the Pentagon and White House, said nothing prepared him for the horror of the dog attack on his Gentle Ben.

"In spite of my background as a crime reporter and a war correspondent, which made me no stranger to physical violence among humans, I still wonder at how the murder of my cat remains one of the more traumatic experiences of my life," Mr. Laitin said.

He and the other families sued the terriers' owner, but state law prevented them from collecting more than the market value of their pets and their veterinary bills.

They ended up spending more for their lawyer than they recouped from the dogs' owner.

Although yesterday's witnesses would not benefit from the proposed new law, they said its passage would discourage others from allowing unfriendly pets to roam free.

Under the bill, pet owners with valid claims could receive up to $250,000 for pain and suffering, plus a potentially unlimited amount of punitive damages.

Still, the bill has a tough road ahead. Sen. Walter M. Baker, the Eastern Shore Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, which will vote on the bill, did not seem too impressed with it.

"I think that we absolutely do too much suing. That's all everyone wants to do anymore," said Mr. Baker, a lawyer.

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