Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Is Lassie Family or Property?

Everyone knows that feeling of a long day that sometimes brings you home in a funk.  You come home expecting to sit on the couch, do a little mindless TV watching, and then retire to bed.  However, something changes your plan and at the same time, your entire outlook on the evening.  The look of an excited and happy dog wagging his or her tail and waiting and ready to greet you and make all of your troubles go away.

Pets have become intertwined in the fabric of our lives.  For most people, they are family members.  They depend on us for food and shelter and in return, give us unconditional love.  When we lose a pet to illness or accident, it is only natural that most people go through a grieving process similar to the loss of a family member or friend.  In the case of an accident caused by another’s negligence, what rights does a pet owner have to recover damages for not only the value of the pet, but the medical bills and loss of companionship that the owner suffers?  For many years, the answer was the actual true market value of the pet.  However, many jurisdictions, including Illinois, have moved toward a more progressive understanding and approach to measuring the damages associated with injury or loss of a pet. 

The most recent Illinois case to examine the treatment of damages associated with injury or loss of a pet was Leith v. Frost, 387 Ill.App.3d 430 (4th Dist. 2008).  In Leith, a couple filed suit for serious injuries sustained by their dachshund, Molly.  The dachshund was attacked by a neighbor’s Siberian husky, Cosmo.  While the couple sought payment of $4,784 in veterinary expenses for Molly, Cosmo’s owner argued that the couple was only entitled to the fair market value of Molly, $200.  The trial court agreed and limited damages to $200 holding that under the law, a dog is property and not person. 

The Fourth District Appellate Court disagreed, finding that it was reasonable to expect pet owners to spend any amount necessary to cure a family member.  Said the court:

It is common knowledge that people are prepared to make great sacrifices for the well-being and continued existence of their household pets, to which they have become deeply attached.  They feel a moral obligation toward these animals.  Emotionally, they have no choice but to lay out great expenditures when these animals suffer a serious physical injury. 

While agreeing that pets are considered personal property, the court equated the value of a pet as akin to that of a family heirloom, photograph, or trophy (i.e. priceless).  In doing so, the court held that damages should not be limited to something as nominal as fair market value, but that the owner should be able to provide evidence of what the pet’s value was to him or her. 

In Leith, the pet owner only sought payment of the veterinary expense as Molly ultimately survived.  Thus, the court did not address whether a pet owner should be entitled to damages for the loss of a pet.  More specifically, should a pet owner whose pet dies as a result of the negligence of another be entitled to damages commonly associated with the wrongful death of a person, i.e. loss of companionship, loss of society?  This is an area of law that will continue to develop and perhaps one day will more closely resemble how pets have become true family members.       

Are pets family members?  Should a pet owner be entitled to damages for the loss of their pet and the emotional suffering such a loss inevitably engenders?  Any and all comments or questions regarding this topic are greatly welcome.    


MFO 54 said...

I just had a recent case involving this issue, as Plaintiff. The problem with allowing damages for loss of companionship and emotional distress is that those may be so subjective that there would be endless litigation. Mine also involved a boarding house, so under bailment, I had great liability and it brought the dispute to a close sooner. My client maybe didn't get all the damages she wanted for the emotional harms, but protracted litigation would have only worsened it and you still have the same problem where there isn't a real standard for assessing special damages. Are more expensive breeds entitled to more specials? Does the cost of the dog measure the value of companionship? Ultimately, I think this case took the right approach - either the fair market value of the dog, or the value of the dog to the owner if the fair market value would result in nominal damages as measured by the amount spent on veterinary bills. I'd rather fight over whether the bills are reasonable than end up with the uncertainty of special damages.

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