Courts' Changing Views on Animal Companions - Nov 20, 2012

Written by Administrator
Tuesday, 20 November 2012 00:00

How do you think of your pet? Is he your BFF (best furry friend), or a possession—i.e., something you own, like a sofa or a microwave oven? Or are you one of the many people in the United States who views your animal companion as a bona fide member of your family? Courts across the country are weighing in on the issue, and the scales may be tilting in a slightly different direction than in the past.

Earlier this year, the Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld $50,000 in emotional distress damages for a California couple who sued their neighbor, John Meihaus Jr., after he used a baseball bat to “guide” their 15-pound miniature pinscher, Romeo, away from his property. There had been bad blood between the Plotniks and Meihaus for some time as a result of a fence dispute, but that suit had been settled, and the neighbors had agreed to cease all hostilities and live in peace. On the day that Romeo was battered, David Plotnik heard a loud banging on the fence and opened his gate to investigate. That was when his dog ran out, dashed onto Meihaus' property and began barking. Meihaus responded by attacking the small dog with a baseball bat.

In addition to suing for emotional distress, the Plotniks were awarded $2,600 to cover veterinary bills that were incurred as a result of the incident. It was the first time the California appellate court recognized emotional distress damages in an injury to a pet.

Writing in Plotnik v. Meihaus, Justice William Rylaarsdam noted that the circumstances demonstrated good cause for emotional distress damages, adding that his decision was in alignment with courts in Washington, Florida and Louisiana. Rylaarsdam also commented that the intentionality of the injury made the case special.

In other cases where the intent to harm has been less clear or unproven, courts have been unwilling to allow the recovery of emotional distress damages. In July, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided that Joynce McDougall could be compensated for the cost and loss of the dog but not for emotional distress. She had witnessed the traumatic death of her dog when it was attacked by the defendant's dog.

In yet another case, the Texas Supreme Court may soon be asked to decide if animal guardians can sue for non-economic damages. Jeremy and Kathryn Medlen are trying to recover the sentimental value of their dog, Avery, who was accidentally euthanized by a shelter worker in 2009. Avery had escaped their back yard and was picked up by animal control. The Medlen's went to retrieve her, but were short on money, so they left to return home and get it after being reassured that Avery would not be euthanized. But of course that is exactly what happened, despite the dog wearing a “hold for owner” tag.

Assigning a “fair value” to animal companions is a difficult, controversial task. Yet, realistically, is it all that different from assessing the value of human companionship and consortium? It's true that most animals do not bring home a paycheck, but that does not diminish the fact that for countless people, companion animals provide as much love, affection and emotional support as humans are capable of giving. I think what we are seeing is a shift in attitudes here, and we can expect the courts to reflect that.


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Last Updated ( Thursday, 03 January 2013 13:59 )