Posted on April 1, 2012
Our Pets: Property or Family Members?
A number of recent court cases have debated the issue of financial compensation for emotional damages stemming from the negligent loss of a pet. While court systems within the United States view our furry and feathered family members as “property” at least in some instances, judges are beginning to regard them as a “special” type of property. At least the cases are being heard rather than kicked out of the courtroom.
Consider the following three examples:
A lawsuit in Clearwater, Florida called for the court to award $15,000 in emotional damages to Liza Baceols. Her beloved Golden Retriever Cody was hospitalized in order to remove a growth on his tail. Following the surgery, Cody chewed at and removed the remaining portion of his tail. He subsequently died during a second surgery to repair the damage. Ms. Baceols claimed that the veterinary staff provided inadequate supervision following the initial surgery. The week-long court proceedings ended in mistrial because of a deadlocked jury.
The Raleigh, North Carolina Court of Appeals weighed in on the wrongful death suit of a Jack Russell Terrier named Laci cared for by Nancy and Herb Shera. Laci passed away because of complications caused by incorrect technique when placing a feeding tube. The Sheras asked for $28,000 in damages, and the party sued was North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. In a 20-page ruling, the appeals court unanimously upheld an earlier verdict in which the Sheras were awarded $2,755 in veterinary bills plus $350 to pay for a new dog of the same breed.
In Texas, Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen’s dog Avery escaped from the family backyard and was picked up by the local animal control organization. Before the Medlens could retrieve their dog and despite a “hold for owner” tag, Avery was euthanized. The Medlen’s prevailed in the courtroom due to a Texas law stating, “where personal property has little or no market value, and its main value is in sentiment, damages may be awarded based on this intrinsic or sentimental value.” It’s interesting to note that, despite the ruling, Avery’s status was never deemed to be anything other than “property.”
How do we all feel about the legal designation of pets as property? It’s a given that outside of the courtroom, we all view our pets to be family members- after all, would I be a weekly pet blogger and would you be a weekly pet blog reader if we didn’t view our animals this way?
So what could be the downside to court rulings that treat pets as family members and award emotional damages on the basis of negligent loss? Consider what Paul Boudloche, an attorney representing the animal control organization in the Avery Medlen case had to say:
I think it’s going to have a significant impact on the private sector, particularly veterinarians, kennel owners, even individuals who take care of their neighbors’ pets. I mean, for example, on veterinarians, things which would be routine care for a pet, now they have to practice much more defensive medicine. The value of a dog has changed in the eye of the law. So, if mistakes happen, the exposure for everybody is much greater.
Veterinarians, veterinary technicians, groomers, pet sitters, boarding facility employees- each and every one of us who assumes responsibility for another person’s pet will undoubtedly, at some point in time, make a mistake. And sometimes those mistakes result in dire consequences. Combine this with the fact that we live in a litigious society and it’s easy to predict skyrocketing malpractice costs, should courts begin awarding damages for pain and suffering caused by the loss of a pet. Currently, on average, veterinarians pay less than $1,000 a year for malpractice insurance. Just imagine if insurance premiums begin to approach what some medical doctors pay- in the range of $100,000 or more per year!
When veterinarians and others who care animals are forced to pay more for malpractice liability, there’s no question how such expense will be recouped. Richard Cupp, a Pepperdine University law professor stated:
If courts routinely start to award emotional damages to pet owners, veterinary care will cost more, leading to more suffering among pets because fewer pets will get sent to the vet.
So, where is the compromise between treating our pets as property and prohibitively expensive malpractice premiums? Consider the legislation called “Gracie’s Law” proposed by Dr. Kenneth Newman, a veterinarian in Florida. His own Labrador Gracie died due to injuries caused by a negligent driver. When attempting to recoup losses for pain and suffering, he ran head-on into the reality that the court viewed Gracie as nothing more than property. According to “Gracie’s Law” people who suffer as Dr. Newman did would be allowed emotional damages of up to $25,000. Perhaps Dr. Newman’s proposed ceiling on damages would serve as a reasonable compromise.
How do you weigh in on this topic? Should courtroom monetary awards exceed the replacement value of a pet? If so, how should the amount of money be determined? How should pet professionals deal with escalating insurance premiums? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook
Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.