Stemming the Epidemic of Petual Harassment

February 03, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.--One thing you have to admire about the Maryland legislature is its quiet respect for capitalism. While it may appear to be dominated by old-fashioned tax-and-spend Democrats, it often goes out of its way to create new money-making opportunities for the entrepreneurial community.

The new Pekinese-protection bill now under consideration in Annapolis is a case in point. This measure would break new legal ground, and has already won Maryland some new national recognition, above and beyond its recent selection as the second-most-dangerous state in the union. Once enacted, it is also going to make a lot of people really rich.

Basically, it would allow the owners of pets which are bitten to sue the socks off the owners of the pets that did the biting. Right now, they can only collect for actual damages, which don't usually amount to much, the actual market value of most dogs and cats being modest. But the new law would let pet owners collect for -- mental anguish! And huge punitive damages could be imposed, too.

Now obviously what we have here is first of all a lawyers' opportunity measure, not an unfamiliar creation of a lawyer-dominated legislature. Once this is on the books, every tin-whistle coven of attorneys between Accident and Pocomoke will have a pet-law specialist on the staff. When the sky's the limit on damages, those one-third contingency fees become pretty attractive.

The payoff won't be limited to lawyers, however. Well-spoken veterinarians will also be in demand as expert witnesses, and of course those mental-health professionals who can describe mental anguish in terms that get a jury's attention will do nicely, too.

But that's only the beginning. Already, eager breeders see a vital new market for cuddly, high-priced puppies, once it's possible to make a quick fortune by buying one and tossing it over the fence in front of your well-insured neighbor's pit bull. (To strengthen the case it will be recommended to have an associate present with a camcorder to record every crunch and shake, as well as the plaintiff-owner's gasps of helpless horror.)

There are obvious possibilities for vertical integration in this lucrative new field. One well-equipped firm could contract to provide the disposable pet, do the videotaping and handle the litigation, as well. It might even offer burial plots and services -- closed-casket, presumably.

The squeamish might not choose to have their pet liquidated, even for a profit. But the legislation offers them a chance to cash in, too. Their animal does not have to die to cause them actionable pain and suffering. It can be wounded, frightened or perhaps -- the courts will have to sort this out -- merely insulted or harassed.

Thus pet-owner Boodle might walk through his subdivision with his in-season Pomeranian, Buffy Sue, on a leash. And when his neighbor Doodle's Dalmatian, his judgment beclouded by airborne pheromones, runs to the chain-link fence and makes rude suggestions, Boodle can snatch up Buffy Sue and telephone his lawyer.

Doodle in turn would seek counsel, and if he were wise would look for a firm specializing in defending against allegations of animal harassment.

In preparation for trial they could compile a dossier on Buffy Sue's lurid sex life, and line up witnesses to confirm the Dalmatian's blameless character.

This all sounds wacky, but it's a new world we're living in, and we'd better get used to it. The old days have gone.

Some years back, a neighbor of ours was keeping some dairy heifers in a field with an invitingly low fence. A bull belonging to another neighbor stepped over the fence and visited for a while with the heifers. The heifers' owner went ballistic. He called the sheriff, called a lawyer and accused the bull of statutory rape.

The bull's owner apologized and offered to negotiate a settlement, but the heifers' owner wasn't in any mood for that. He didn't want a settlement, he said, he wanted justice, whatever that might be. He also refused to release the bull, keeping him confined in the field with the heifers. It wasn't quite clear why he did this; perhaps he hoped the bull might marry one of them.

Anyway, the bull soon tired of his pubescent companions and began to pine for more mature relationships, so he stepped back over the fence and went home to the cows from whom he'd strayed.

It was hard to tell which infuriated the heifers' owner the most, the way the bull got into his field or the way he got out. He eventually got a couple of hundred dollars in compensation, but to this day I doubt he thinks he got justice.

If a bull were to try a trick like that today he'd be in serious trouble, and if he were to try it after the legislature passes the proposed pet bill he and his owner would both be dead meat, in a legal sense. Even a steer climbing over the wrong fence these days could bring on a big-money lawsuit, and that's no bull.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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