Our Pets: Property or Family Members?

Photo Credit: Blair O'Neil

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.

Best wishes,

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.

 

 

 

 

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26 Comments on “Our Pets: Property or Family Members?

  1. As one who worked for tort reform in my state, I can honestly say that until one experiences the lost of a loved one, human OR non human, thrrough negligence, it is very difficult to understand the pain that ensures. Just as Dr. Ken’s perspective changed through his loss of Gracie, so did mine by the loss of Peach and also, the suffering that my father underwent due to a bad decision by a surgeon.
    Dr. Ken’s “Gracie’s Law” is a step in the right direction. Not only would it limit “outrageous” awards, but it would provide a means by which those who have not been “punished” by the vet boards for egregious behavior, would finally be held accountable.
    Yes, mistakes happen. But when there is obvious lack of due diligence, I(as in the case above, where the vet personnel failed to take the proper measure to protect the dog, and the poor dog darted into traffic and died) , there should be some means for accountability.
    Most “mistakes” can be prevented by a system of checking and cross checking.
    Gracie’s Law would also benefit animals by giving half of the award to a rescue organization of the pet parents’ choice.

  2. Dear Ms. Kay,

    In response to your article: “Our Pets: Property or Family Members?”

    How can a veterinarian be considered a doctor if his or her patients are considered to be nothing more than “property”? Vets take great pride in the lofty title “Doctor,” yet they accept none of the responsibility associated with that title.

    Freedom from professional responsibility leads to a degeneration of the skills of the practitioner. To say that veterinarians should not be responsible for incidents of proven malpractice on the basis of increased insurance costs for increased litigation is a false argument. If the law required responsibility for veterinary malpractice, the rate of that malpractice would plummet. And, if licensed professionals are competent and caring in their professions, there is generally little for them to fear with respect to litigation from their clients or patients. Society has a right to expect and to demand that veterinarians be competent and provide quality of care.

    All other professions are held to that standard of excellence. There is only one exception, and that is the profession of veterinary medicine (emphasis supplied).

    You mentioned in your article “Premiums would skyrocket, and current insurance premiums are less than $1,000.”

    I believe you meant to say that current insurance premiums for veterinarians are less than $500, and that is per year! That’s less than the cost of a single cup of coffee per day.

    The argument you make regarding insurance rates skyrocketing is the same scare tactic that was used once upon a time in human medicine. The reason that human insurance rates went up was due to the State of New York’s misappropriation of almost a billion dollars from an emergency fund that was set up by the legislature specifically in order to provide a safety net in case any of the four private companies in business at that time providing medical malpractice insurance failed for any reason. No such failure occurred, and those set-aside funds were improperly drained out by the State and diverted to other, unintended uses.

    Any increase you may predict in the rates of malpractice insurance that would have to be paid by veterinarians, if they were to be held responsible for proven malpractice, would not be due to a surge in litigation. A strong argument can be made that the extra care and diligence that susceptibility to punishment would inspire in vets would result in a sharp decline in the number of senseless injuries and deaths the bad veterinarians now cause, and that in turn would result in fewer jury awards and in stable insurance rates for the others.

    I suggest you do your homework and stop insulting people’s intelligence.

    For information on why insurance rates went go to:

    http://www.tortdeform.com/archives/2007/07/why_new_york_medical_malpracti_1.html

    Your article asked: “Should courtroom monetary awards exceed the replacement value of a pet? If so, how should the amount of money be determined?”

    I would think that the following would be some of the commonsense questions that would be asked when determining a reasonable award to the owner of a pet that was unnecessarily injured or killed as a result of proven professional malpractice.

    1. What sort of life did this animal have?
    2. Was he lavished with the best of everything?
    3. How much was spent on the best of everything?
    4. What was his life expectancy?
    5. Was he in the prime of his life?
    6. Just how badly did the vet screw up? Was it simple malpractice or gross malpractice?

    These are some of the factors that should be considered in determining an appropriate and reasonable award.

    In conclusion, respect and title are earned. Doctors of Veterinary Medicine claim that they are not practicing “medicine” because their patients are not human and therefore they count for nothing other than “chattel.” Your “profession” has certainly lost my respect along with the respect of millions of other Americans whose companion animals were maimed and/or killed by incompetent practitioners who have nothing to worry about because they are shielded by a cruel, archaic law giving veterinarians a free ride.

    It’s long past time that the two related and absurd “legal fictions” that pets have no value other than replacement cost, and that veterinarians are not practicing medicine, be recognized as such and be abolished immediately.

    Marzena Golonka

  3. My husband and I boarded our very healthy yorkie at her vets office so that we could get a few days vacation to get away from the stress of work. One day into our vacation i get a call from the vet. She tells me that while they were letting our 9lb dog out she got through their barred fence. They neglected to use her leash, harness or collar to ensure that she was secured within their premises. The vet went on to tell me that our beloved dog ran into the street and was killed by a car. Shouldn’t the place that we paid to care for and protect her have some liability?? Their neglience has devestated me and my husband more than we ever could have known. We now have to tell our children. It just doesn’t seem right that they can allow that to happen and they get away “Scott free”

  4. The cases dealt with negligence of vets or by others.

    How would we define pets as family members when we are humans and they are canine, feline, equine, etc.

    The emotional bond is that, a bond.

    I can’t claim my team members on my taxes as dependents.

    Litigation over a loss is the issue, I think, striping away the veneer.

    We had a team member die recently, so the loss is understandable.

  5. Dr Newman, Gracie’s Law appears reasonable. It allows for an award but will not lead to million dollar judgements.

    As to how pets are treated, and requiring some level of care, what is it, 20% of human children live in poverty? What percentage of homeless people are teenagers, kicked out of their homes? It is hard to imagine the government will protect pets when it does not protect human children. Would animal control still be able to kill homeless pets?

  6. I don’t understand why anybody would support that pet owners are considered pet guardians by the law. If we give up our ownership rights of our pets, that means we lose the ability to stand up for our pets and make decisions about their care. This means somebody other than the many pet guardians would set standards of care for our pets. Here are a few examples to think about, consider it would be the standard of care to take all pets for a dental cleaning every year, right now this costs usually around 300 to 500 dollars, however if pets are no longer property and veterinarians have to pay more liability insurance and cover their butt when providing care, this procedure may then cost 2 or 3 times as much or more and include an overnight hospital stay for observation which may drive the price up to 2000 or 3000 dollars because of course the overnight patients couldn’t be left with a technician, there would have to be a veterinarian on duty to make sure that the clinic couldn’t be sued for malpractice if something goes wrong and no vet is on duty. How many pet guardians would be able to afford this? Right now, if you can’t afford a procedure you have to make some difficult decisions as a pet owner together with your veterinarian. If you don’t own the pet and are just a guardian, if you can’t pay for what the standard of care requires, you lose your right to be the guardian to those pets and in addition you won’t be able to become the guardian of any other pets meaning you lose all of your pets and cannot get any new ones. Maybe there would be a standard that people have to have x-many thousand dollars in the bank before they become eligible to be a pet guardian. If anybody thinks this is far-fetched, think about who is pushing for this guardian stuff and what their motivation is. How many people wouldn’t qualify to be a guardian if the standard of care would require that no pet is left alone at home for more than 4 hours a day? What about 6 hours or 8 hours? What about if you couldn’t just go and buy/adopt a pet but would have to apply for guardianship first and what if you couldn’t meet the criteria set forth, maybe you would have to own a house, maybe you would have to be a certain age, maybe you would have to meet a certain income. Why do so many pet owners believe that they and their pets would be better off if they were just guardians of their pets?

  7. I am appalled at the stand of both the AVMA and the AKC. They espouse a policy of no value if the pet can not reproduce thus giving an intact animal more value. It is a version of a livestock mentality which has not embraced the human animal bond. Of course, pets are more than property and they will continue to grow in value but the value is not material. Hard to measure love and trust in a scale where money is the only weight the AKC and AVMA recognizes as income.onlied

  8. My concern is that by allowing pets to be deemed other than property, we start sliding down a slippery slope of becoming “guardians” rather than “owners”. As guardians, I begin to lose my right as an owner to determine what is best for my pet.

    Also, think about the complications of dogs in couples that divorce. My dogs were awarded to me just like a house or a vehicle (as it should be). If they’re not property, I could have been tangled up with my now ex-husband for YEARS because of them.

    I make my living because of dogs and my personal dogs are the most important things to me. However, I definitely want to stay an owner.

    Diane Blackman, CDPT-KA
    All Dawgs Training Services
    Albany, NY

  9. I have so far been unsuccessful in finding sponsorship for Gracie’s Law in Florida. Interestinly enough, there is a bill before the Vermont Senate that simply allows for non economic damages, uncapped. The bill is opposed by the AVMA and VermontVMA, and was sponsored by 2 Senators. Below is the text of a letter that I sent to all Florida State Senators.

    Dear Senator,
    My cause may not seem significant in today’s world of economic uncertainty; however, I am asking that you consider sponsoring Gracie’s Law.
    Three years ago my beloved Labrador Retriever, Gracie, and I were crushed between the rear of our car and the rear of a lady’s car who admittedly backed up 25 yards without looking. She testified at a deposition that you cannot be looking behind you while travelling in reverse, that you must look in front and to the side. I am alive today because Gracie was killed. I did not feel the impact of the accident until Gracie was crushed to the width of my calf. My leg was broken in three places and I needed surgery for a ruptured cruciate ligament, but the loss of my dog far exceeded the pain of the accident.
    Gracie’s law was conceived the day that a Geico attorney looked me in the eye and told me that my dog was a piece of property, and that I would not receive a penny above replacement value for my dog. Ninety percent of pet owners consider their pet to be FAMILY! Gracie’s Law allows for compensation for loss of companionship and pain and suffering when a pet is deliberately killed through malice or accidentally killed through negligence.
    The Judiciary Committee of the Florida Senate has reviewed Gracie’s Law and found that the law does not currently address this issue. My Senator, Dennis Jones, would not speak with me about this. So much for representation in our republic. I ask that you open your heart to the important role that pets play in our lives, and sponsor Gracie’s Law to rectify this horrible injustice that grieving pet owners must endure.
    I am attaching a copy of the text of Gracie’s Law. Cynthia Smoot and Fox 13 News did a 6 ½ minute news story that aired in September, 2010. The story can be seen by following the home page link at http://www.meetmeattherainbowbridge.com. DVM News Magazine reported on my efforts last fall. Urban Dog Magazine also told my story in October, 2010. I am currently using every available social media outlet to enlist support for Gracie’s law.
    Over sixty percent of your constituents own pets, a rather sizable voting bloc. Thank you for your consideration.
    Sincerely,

    Kenneth Newman, DVM

  10. A triad of broken hearts

    When organized veterinary medicine appeals the Texas appellate verdict that allows the owner of the dog that was negligently killed by animal services to recover sentimental value, their intent prevents all people who lose a pet from negligence or malice from being whole .
    Veterinary malpractice is one side of a triangle of people who lose pets through negligence or malice. Pets are killed maliciously by derelicts such as the case of the decorated war veteran, Marcus Luttrell, whose DASY, so important in his psychological recovery, was killed in his backyard. Shadow Scheele was killed when a man shot him for wandering off church property onto a neighboring yard.
    The third side of the triangle are people like myself. Gracie was killed by a negligent driver who backed up 25 yards without looking, crushing her and I between the rear of our car and hers.
    Monetary rewards will not replace the lost pet; however, if they serve as a deterrent so people may exercise due diligence in the practice of veterinary medicine, or think twice before shooting a pet for fun, or be more careful when formulating prescription medicines, or be more careful when driving, then they may ultimately save lives.

  11. Thank you Dr. Kay for mentioning Gracie’s Law. The text follows:

    GRACIE’S LAW

    To recognize the emotional bond that exists between pets and people, the human animal bond, this law entitles the owner of a pet that is deliberately killed through an act of malice or accidentally killed through an act of negligence to the sum of $12,500 for loss of companionship and pain and suffering, plus all legal fees required to prove the negligence or malice. An equal amount, $12,500, will be donated to a pet rescue organization of the bereaved pet owner’s choice in honor of their lost pet. This law does not supersede the laws already in existence which entitles the pet owner to the value of their pet as property. In the case of an act of malice, all laws relating to criminal prosecution remain in effect. A veterinarian who prescribes an appropriate medical or surgical plan by community standard that is declined by the owner of the pet would not be held accountable under this law, should the medical record state that the owner of the pet declined the appropriate treatment.

  12. 1. Pets are FAMILY! Ninety percent of pet parents now consider that their pet children are family members.
    2. Pets are sentient beings capable of complex emotions. They feel pain. They know happiness and sorrow. They love unconditionally. They grieve for the loss of their human parents.
    3. Legally our pets are property in all 50 states. The parent of a pet that is killed accidentally through negligence or deliberately with malice is only entitled to replacement value. This does not adequately recognize the emotional loss that they have suffered.
    4. Veterinarians see a daily onslaught of legalized neglect and abuse because pets are dependent on their owners to decide what is in their pets’ best interest. The pet parent is oftentimes ignorant about what is needed, or makes the decision in their own financial best interest.
    5. Veterinarians have benefited for 30 years through promoting the human animal bond to encourage pet parents to spend ever increasing sums for treatment of their pet children, yet the epitome of hypocrisy is their resolute determination that our pets remain in the legal status of property. Veterinarians remain the only health care providers without legal responsibility for acts of negligence.
    6. The murder of 6-8 million dogs and cats will continue until the legal status of pets moves beyond the property level.
    7. Gracie’s Law recognizes the human animal bond, the emotional attachment between pets and people, compensates the parent that loses a pet child for pain and suffering and loss of companionship, and begins to move pets out of property status by recognizing a value above their replacement value.

  13. Our Pets are more than “property”….. NOT like your toaster or lamp.!!!! Our precious pets ( family members ) have “intrinsic value.”
    The state of NC is archaic about their law and so are TOO many other states. The law needs to be changed and NOW.
    HEY……. stand up and defend our pets……… they cannot talk, we as owners have to do that for them.
    AND when the Vet school admits total guilt for torturing and Killing Laci… they need to be held accountable. Where is the justice for her? Tell me WHERE????? Oh, a misplaced feeding tube, are you kidding me….this should have been a very simple procedure. BUT they did NOT know what they were doing, SHAME on them. This is a GROSS, HORRIFIC killing of a precious pet. She struggled for her life for over 7 hours. I ask where is the JUSTICE FOR Laci???

  14. I believe that “Gracie’s Law” is an equitable manner in which to ensure that pets are no longer seen as property and have intrinsic value. The cap provided in Gracie’s Law will ensure that there will not be unreasonable awards. Veterinarians who practice due diligence have nothing to fear from this law. In addition, I believe that there is a provision that half of the award will be given to the rescue organization of choice in memory of the companion animal whose life was cut short due to negligence or malice. Although that will certainly not “replace” the pet who was lost, it will certainly serve as a fitting legacy by helping other animals.
    Those of us who have lost our four legged family members to veterinary malpractice know the pain of this loss, which is very different than when one loses a pet to old age or disease. It is time that our laws reflect what our society already does…that pets are family, not property. I applaud Dr. Newman for his efforts and I applaud Dr. Kay for having written this article.

  15. Several people won their animals back in Louisiana after Katrina because of the state “found property” law.

    Although the family prevailed in the Texas case, they are being opposed in an appeal supported by some heavy hitters – the Humane Society of the US and the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

    Wow! Who could be against the courts awarding more than replacement cost for an animal? The Humane Society of the US and the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – inexplicable to me . ..

  16. I don’t see money as a means to compensate somebody for the loss of a loved one, be it a person or an animal. If a pet of mine would die due to someone else’s fault, no amount of money will bring her back or enables me to replace her. Mistakes and accidents are part of life, we all make mistakes, misunderstand something, don’t know something or forget something. Often it’s just a small error that can cause a big problem. The vast majority of people don’t get up in the morning and plan to create a problem or hurt another being. It’s okay to be sad and angry when a pet suffers or dies due to someone else’s fault, but that doesn’t mean we should go out and without concern for anybody else insist on revenge and punishment in form of money, knowing that in the long run it will hurt a lot more pets and people because there will be consequences if professionals in the pet industry have to carry a lot of liability insurance. Anger and revenge are not feelings that improve a person’s emotional well-being, I believe it is a lot healthier to focus on finding peace with something that has happened, if needed find a way to channel the grief and anger into something positive, and to honor the one who suffered or lost her life by promoting changes that will make things better.

  17. Family members, they are. And Jana is right, stuff happens. If there is no negligence then I wouldn’t sue. One of my industrious pals pulled his IV out several times. He survived, and I regarded it as his personality issue, not the vet’s staff doing something wrong.

    I can certainly see suing the Animal Control agency. There is a difference between negligence/stupidity and stuff happening.

    No amount of cash could compensate for the loss.

  18. I believe we, as humans, are soon to reach a new level of “cognitive evolution” that is, a change in our attitude and relationship with other animals. Recently (published on the BBC website) a group of scientist who study cetaceans have proposed that these animals should be treated as non human persons. Putting this concept into practice is quite another hurdle. Thus killing a cetacean would be an act of murder. I am hopeful that we will include other animals in this category within our lifetime. Remember, a vegetarian diet is much healthier and, may I add, “green”!

  19. When I leave my house, I lock the gate to the yard, but I never lock the house. There is nothing in there more precious than my animal friends. I have always been annoyed that “pets” are considered property, and I love the new movement to replace the word “owner” with “guardian”. I am constantly horrified by the classification of living beings as property (in many middle Eastern countries, women are still property), but I am also appalled at how everyone seems ready to sue for anything, like the legal lottery: Hey, I could win a lot of money! People suing doctors and pharmaceutical companies are the reason why they still use animals in laboratories: so when sued, they can point to all the animals they tortured and killed and say: see: wee did the tests, and it seemed safe! – even though results usually do not carry across species lines. But I digress. I certainly believe in awards for pain and suffering where true negligence is involved; but I think a $25,000 cap plus expenses is adequate.
    Last year, my beloved dog Arctic died. She went from healthy to dead in 10 days; and in that 10 days I spent $3000 trying to save her life. A big chunk of that was at the emergency clinic where she was in intensive care for some overnights. When she died, my vet (who I adore) apologized for the expense! I considered it money well spent (versus the years of self-recrimination I would have gone through had I not done everything possible).
    I think patients. aka consumers, need to understand that medicine is an art, not a mechanical process. When I take my car to the mechanic for overheating, I expect it to be fixed. But in bodies, not everything can be fixed. I think that some kind of liability waiver and an acknowledgement that not everything can be fixed would be in order; it would not excuse people from negligence (for which they would still be liable) but from the vagaries of being in a physical body.
    I recently read about a couple who took their bulldog to be groomed. They got a call that he had died on the grooming table: the groomer had muzzled him, completely unaware of animal care and the fact that if you muzzle a brachycephalic breed, they cannot breathe! Complete and utter negligence, and I hope those people get a ton of cash for their totally preventable loss!
    I have never had a horse. But I always drive extra-carefully when I am near a horse trailer. Is there any way to put thick padding in the front of the trailer to prevent or ameliorate the kind of injuries described by Sara (above)?
    And of course if, no WHEN we stop thinking of animals as property, it will be easier to prosecute slime for abusing their own “pets”…but that’s a rant for another day.

  20. Our adoption group pays about $1,000 per year for insurance…

    Surprised we pay an amount similar and perhaps even greater than veterinarians, considering the number of pets and that they are our pets so our main risk is one of our pets injures someone.

  21. In my state, Rhode Island, we are “Guardians” of our pets, not owners. So this is an interesting topic to me. While I don’t know of any “guardians” who have sued over the death or maiming of a pet, I can just imagine that there are people out there who, if they knew about this, would sue in the name of being that pet’s guardian rather than owner.

  22. WOW! Touchy subject because we are all emotionally involved with our animals, and when accidents happen we all want to point a finger and place blame. That inevitably happens when emotions are running at their highest. My biggest example of when I wanted compensation for negligence is a poor-judgement driver who made me slam on my brakes at a very slow speed with my horse trailer. The result was about 4 weeks of intermittant pain for my horse before diagnosis of a bone fragment in his fetlock joint. His leg had hit the front wall of the trailer because of the quick stop. Two days of diagnostics, arthroscopic surgery at UC Davis Equine Vet Center and follow up with my vet = $4,000+. But we were out of endurance competition for the season, which meant waiting a full year again. We also had to go inactive with our volunteer park patrol for about 6 months, which meant 3-days-a week of not volunteering locally in our parks. And over 6 months of slow recovery with the crossed-fingers of full-recovery. This experience (6 years ago) has left me with the scar of worried about another quick stop, which happened again three days ago on rain-slickened roads and inappropriate drivers. I am now in the days of worry watching for lameness to show up again, with crossed fingers that my horse is sound. Lucky for me, I had just insured my horse for major medical when this first incident happened, but insurance does not cover pain and suffering, or loss of time and conditioning, nor does it explain to a fit horse why he cannot run and buck but has to be confined to a stall with a bandange. All because a person couldn’t slow down and share the road. We take on a huge responsibility with our animals, which means taking on the burdon of accidents and medical bills, but when negligence happens, we react through our hearts. Because we care about them so much, like family, like Nancy says.

  23. As a long time breeder/trainer and as a very knowledgeable consumer of veterinary care for my own multiple dogs, I support court rulings that deem dogs and other family members of other species as more than property. I also support this from my background as a psychologist who teaches medical students to avoid malpractice suits by

    (1) learning and practicing excellent communication skills with patients and their families,

    (2) by acknowledging and taking full responsibility for errors when they occur,

    (3) by apologizing wholeheartedly for errors, and

    (4) by promising to find and implement ways to avoid errors in the future so that no other patient has to suffer the same outcome in the future.

    Research indicates that malpractice suits do not primarily occur because of errors. Patients sue because they are angered when physicians have not heard and responded to problems in a way that satisfies the patient. Sometimes doctors responding appropriately means only apologizing and correcting potential for errors in the future. Sometimes responding appropriately means not charging the patient for care. Sometimes appropriately means making amends for errors. But avoiding suits always involves finely honed communication skills to protect the doctor/patient relationship. We can regard dogs as family members if we treat and communicate with all family members when errors occur and have a good doctor/patient relationship.

  24. I believe the intrinsic and emotional value of a pet to a person must be recognized and acknowledged in the settlements of both accidental and non-accidental injury to animals. But I also believe that financial reimbursements, while they should be more than the simple replacement value, need not be excessive to still effectively deter neglectful or malevolent behavior. A balance (which is sadly not in place in other arenas of malpractice) needs to be found and heeded. I’m personally more in favor of rewards in cases of intentional and obvious neglect and irresponsible management but the sad reality is that we are a litigious society and abuses will always occur where the opportunity exists. This will inevitably drive up the costs of business. The likely impact of this is that fewer responsible people (ergo those who employ animal care services) will keep companion animals.

  25. Dr. Kay,

    As an attorney, I understand the increased costs associated with emotional damages. To a great extent, the industry is a victim of it’s own success. Specifically, the human-animal bond which serves as foundation for family member status.

    The problem lies in the inherent contradiction between messages and reality. On one hand, the industry is happy to convince me that 9 year old Beezer, my black Lab, is a family member who will thrive from product or service “X.” On the other hand, should something go wrong (ie, tainted food?), then Beezer’s status changes to that of a used, 9 year old “vacuum cleaner.” You ought not be able to get it “both ways.”

    A good starting point is to realign messaging with reality. Advertising and promotion of family member status creates an expectation in the mind of the listener. This creates justifiable reliance if acted upon. Subsequently, if this trust is apparently betrayed, then anger and guilt are the logical results.

    I don’t think any amount of damages reform will correct this inherent communication problem.

    Doug Koktavy
    Author: The Legacy of Beezer and Boomer: Lessons on Living and Dying From My Canine Brothers

    PS: Belated congrat’s on your Leo Bustad Award! So well deserved!

  26. Well, I totally agree that dogs are more than just a property. However, I don’t think we should be running around taking everybody to court over everything either. If a gross negligence is proved, than yes. But when things just go wrong? Shit happens and sometimes nobody can predict it or prevent it.