Property or more? Pets and the law

Two recent court cases have brought a longstanding debate back into the spotlight: How much is a companion animal worth?

Both cases involve plaintiffs who are seeking non-economic damages for the deaths of their pets. In both cases, the state laws say that pets are property. In one case, a woman sued her veterinarian for distress and loss of companionship. In another case yet to be decided, a man is suing another private citizen for damages resulting from the death of his dog.

Court cases

A California appeals court ruled earlier this month that a veterinarian who causes the death of a dog cannot be forced to pay the dog’s owner for emotional distress or loss of companionship.

In the case, attorney Gail McMahon claimed that her veterinarian caused the death of her Maltese, Tootsie, by feeding the dog too soon after surgery. According to the complaint, the veterinarian allegedly allowed Tootsie to be fed a mixture of baby food and water less than two hours after an operation to treat laryngeal paralysis, which caused the dog to aspirate the mixture into her lungs. She later died of aspiration pneumonia, according to the case files.

McMahon sued the veterinarian and the hospital for damages due to intentional infliction of emotional distress and loss of companionship, saying that the veterinarian knew of her attachment to the dog.

An Orange County Superior Court judge said McMahon could not recover damages for emotional distress or loss of companionship, so McMahon appealed the decision. But the California Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, and said that state law would not allow McMahon to receive the damages.

“We recognize the love and loyalty a dog provides creates a strong emotional bond between an owner and his or her dog,” the court wrote in its opinion. “But given California law does not allow parents to recover for the loss of companionship of their children, we are constrained not to allow a pet owner to recover for loss of the companionship of a pet.”

The California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) approved of the court’s ruling.

“The CVMA signed on to the amicus brief that was presented to the court in this case,” said CVMA Executive Director Valerie Fenstermaker. “We are pleased with the court’s decision.”

Another case, set to go to court soon in Virginia, offers a slight twist on the same subject. The case, reported in The Washington Post, centers around a man who claimed that his former domestic partner killed their pet Chihuahua. The lawsuit claims that the plaintiff has suffered “severe emotional distress” since the attack, and he is seeking at least $15,000 in damages.

According to Virginia state law, “All dogs and cats shall be deemed personal property,” and owners of pets that are injured or killed are “entitled to recover the value thereof or the damage done thereto.”

It remains to be seen if the court will decide that “value” extends beyond the economic value of the dog.

Strong opposition

Adrian Hochstadt, JD, assistant director for state legislative and regulatory affairs for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said the AVMA gets wind of two or three cases like this each year. The cases mostly arise in appeals courts, where matters of law – rather than facts – are disputed, he said.

The AVMA has a strong position against the awarding of non-economic damages for the death of a pet.

“This issue is essential to the economic viability of the profession,” Hochstadt said. “There are several unintended consequences that we see arising from encouraging litigation and higher damage awards.”

In a paper published in the July/August 2009 edition of the American Bar Association magazine General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division (GPSOLO), Hochstadt and AVMA president James Cook wrote about non-economic damages and how they could damage the profession and ultimately harm animals.

“One need not be wealthy to afford a pet in the United States—now,” the article says. “But that could change if we take the drastic step of overturning established legal doctrine in this area.”

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) also opposes the recovery of non-economic damages. In some cases, both the AVMA and AAHA do support recovery of “measureable” economic damages, such as:

  • purchase price;
  • age and health of the animal;
  • breeding status;
  • pedigree;
  • special training;
  • veterinary expenses related to the incident in question; and
  • any particular economic utility the animal has to the owner.

But changing the law to allow recovery of non-economic damages would be harmful, the AVMA says. Among other effects, it would increase the cost of veterinary and related services, and force veterinarians to spend more time preparing legal and court documents rather than treating animals.

“Allowing a claim for non–economic damages in order to provide considerable financial awards to a small number of pet owners and attorneys does not justify compromising the quality and affordability of the entire animal health care system,” Hochstadt and Cook wrote. “We think America’s pets are worth more than that.”

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