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Brief Introduction to Pet Damages

Rebecca F. Wisch


Animal Legal & Historical Center
Publish Date:
2003
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Brief Introduction to Pet Damages

 

"My pet groomer's negligence caused severe injuries to my dog.  Assuming I can prove he was negligent, can I get emotional distress or loss of companionship damages?"

The likely answer to this question is no.  In the United States, domesticated animals (either pets or animals of a commercial importance) are considered the personal property of the owner. Animals have no independent legal rights for the most part (i.e., animals cannot be a party to a lawsuit in court). As a result, when a pet is injured or killed, it is the owner who must file a lawsuit to recover damages. Unfortunately, the traditional computation of damages for the loss of pet is the market value of the pet – the amount of money someone else would pay for the identical pet of the same, age, breed, and condition. Since most of our beloved cats and dogs are not pedigreed or are of mixed breed, they have little or no market value.  Thus, despite the grievous nature of the act that injured the dog, owners are left with no compensation. 

The current movement in pet damages jurisprudence now focuses more on the impact to the human owners of the creatures injured or killed by the wrongful action of another. Courts now grapple with whether damages can be awarded for loss of companionship of the pet or whether damages can be awarded for the emotional distress suffered by the owner. While the majority of states still reject such damages for a variety of reasons, a few states have broken away from traditional property law notions to provide recovery for these non-human household members. States such as Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, New York and New Jersey to some extent, as well as the District of Columbia express a willingness to accept claims requesting damages beyond market value. Causes of action for emotional distress (the mental anguish suffered by the owner as a result of the negligent or intentional actions of the wrongdoer), loss of companionship, and, on a more limited basis, the "intrinsic value" of the pet are now becoming more common. It is this consideration of intrinsic value (or as one court described it as, "that a pet is not just a thing but occupies a special place somewhere in between a person and a piece of personal property") that may be the first step toward increasing the status of pets under law.

Thus, the answer to the initial question depends in large part on the state in which you live.  Courts are generally reluctant to contradict established precedent in the state by creating a new legal remedy.  However, the only way to force courts to take intentional and negligent acts against companion animals more seriously is to push the envelope.  In this way, both the concerns of animal companions and their human guardians can be better addressed by the legal system.

When a human is injured or killed due to the intentional or even negligent act of another, that individual usually has the right to sue the responsible party for damages (legal compensation for an injury). However, despite the importance we as a society attach to our pets, these same remedies are often unavailable for injury to our animal companions. While the criminal law has made great strides in addressing cruelty to animals, pet owners face an uphill battle in the civil arena.

 

Legal Overview of Pet Damages

Table of Cases Related to Pet Damages

Table of Statutes Related to Pet Damages

 

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