New Jersey court refuses non-economic damages

Suing for emotional distress is reserved for the deaths of humans, not animals, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled.

On July 31, 2012, the court ruled that a close relationship with a pet could not be considered at the same level of a close familial relationship.

"Although we recognize that many people form close bonds with their pets, we conclude that those bonds do not rise to the level of a close familial relationship or intimate, marital-like bond," Justice Helen Hoens wrote for the court in a 5-0 decision.

According to, Joyce McDougall, sued after her 9-year-old maltese-poodle mix named Angel was mauled by a larger dog owned by Charlot Lamm in 2007.

McDougall, a divorced mother of three living alone with Angel, sued for emotional distress and the cost to replace the dog, estimated at $1,395.

At trial, she described Angel as a "friendly, lively, energetic dog" that loved children, reported. McDougall tearfully said the dog slept by her bed and spent most of the time with her because she did not work outside the home.

Superior Court Judge Robert Brennan awarded her $5,000 to replace the value of the dog, saying he took into account her loss. However, he did not allow her to sue for emotional distress.

McDougall’s attorney, Lewis Stein, said she should be compensated for losing a companion pet.

"There is no dispute that Mrs. McDougall suffered emotional distress," Stein said, adding that she has been so distraught over the loss of Angel she hasn’t bought a new dog.

Lamm’s attorney, Brian O’Toole, said state law allows pet owners to only sue for an economic loss — not an emotional one.

"I don’t really think the court had much of a choice here," O’Toole said, noting that he is an avid dog lover. "When a person sues for emotional distress, we’ve limited that very strictly to intimate, familial relationships. To think we’re going to expand it to a pet — even a companion pet — seemed unlikely."

Without those restrictions, people could sue for emotional distress at losing almost anything, O’Toole said.

Stein said the restriction stems from the fear of a deluge of lawsuits and "a lack of confidence in the jury’s role to separate real from imagined" emotional distress.

According to, only courts in Louisiana, Florida and Hawaii have allowed emotional distress or mental anguish or distress cases for pets.

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