High court rules against teens suing Maryland over pet's death State killed ferret to test for rabies after it bit child

April 15, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For more than two years, two Hagerstown teen-agers have been trying to get the state of Maryland to pay them for destroying their pet ferret in a rabies test. Yesterday, that effort ended in defeat in the nation's highest court.

In a brief order with no explanation, the Supreme Court turned down the appeal of Gina Raynor, 14, and Heather Sauders, 15, who had been the co-owners of a ferret named Rasha. The girls were joined in the case by parents.

"It wasn't a complete loss" to be denied an opportunity to get compensation, Gina said yesterday in a telephone interview after returning home from North Hagerstown High, where she is a freshman.

"At least we got the law in Maryland changed," she noted. After Rasha was killed to test its brain for rabies after it bit a girl, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law that would spare ferrets that had bitten a person.

Under the law, the ferret is kept in quarantine for up to 10 days to see if it develops signs of the disease. If not, it is not destroyed, as biting ferrets would have been under state health policy in effect before.

Steven Raynor, Gina's father, said that he and Gina knew "from the start" that they were going to lose on their attempt to get compensation for the destruction of Rasha, "because it was a health issue." Rasha was found to be free of rabies.

When the ferret was 5 months old, Gina took it to a slumber party three days before Christmas in 1994; that was to be a kind of tryout visit before she gave the pet to Heather. Gina had another ferret, Stimpy, and her father told her she could not keep two.

At the party, the ferret smelled cookies the girls were eating, and moved to bite a cookie. He missed and nipped the finger of Christina Leigh Heitt.

State health officials told Christina's mother that the girl would have to undergo painful rabies shots, or else the animal would have to be destroyed to test it for rabies. Her mother resisted the shots, so health officials obtained a court order to have the animal destroyed.

The girls' claim for an unspecified amount of compensation was rejected by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in May. The Supreme Court voted to leave that ruling intact.

The Hagerstown teen-agers' attorney, Paul Victor Jorgensen of Middletown, said yesterday that other pet owners would continue the fight for compensation when officials destroy their pets for claimed safety reasons.

The attorney commented that the girls had taken their dispute to the Supreme Court because they "felt like it was a very important principle."

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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