Marking the end of a three year legal battle, the Texas Supreme Court ruled last Friday that damages awarded for a pet’s death due to negligence are "limited to loss of value, not loss of relationship" and maintained that a pet guardian could not seek damages for sentimental value after the family dog was mistakenly euthanized in a Fort Worth animal shelter. The ruling reaffirms over 120 years of precedent.
Historically, the law has regarded pets as personal property in the United States. As such, damages for the loss of a pet typically equal the market value (essentially, the replacement value) of the animal. Most pets have little or no market value.
However, since nearly all guardians believe that the cost of simply replacing a beloved pet is not the correct measure of damages, the U.S. legal system frequently wrestles with thorny compensatory issues when companion animals are injured or killed. Proposed damages may include, for example, consequential damages (veterinary bills and other out-of-pocket expenses), punitive damages (damages awarded as a deterrent or punishment) and damages relating to the intrinsic or sentimental value of an animal, emotional distress and/or loss of companionship felt by a pet guardian.
What about California?
In California, pet guardians can legally seek more than just the market value of an injured pet. In fact, several noteworthy appellate rulings have recently signaled a shift in California case law away from treating injured pets as commonplace personal property (like a sofa or a car), toward an acknowledgment that a pet’s unique value cannot be measured by the marketplace alone. Punitive and emotional distress damages may be available in certain instances, as well as reimbursement for veterinary costs.
Punitive Damages – When a pet’s injuries are caused intentionally or by gross negligence, punitive damages may be awarded. In a May 2011 decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeal, over $36,000 in veterinary care costs were deemed appropriate in the case of a malicious shooting of a cat who subsequently became partially paralyzed. In addition to reimbursement for veterinary bills, the court held that punitive damages were also recoverable under California’s Civil Code for injuries caused willfully or by gross negligence.
Emotional Distress Damages – When a pet is injured intentionally, emotional distress damages may also be available. In August 2012, after a man purposefully hit his neighbor’s miniature pinscher with a baseball bat, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found that emotional distress damages may be permitted in instances of "intentional trespass to personal property." In addition to $2,600 in veterinary bills, the court upheld $50,000 in emotional distress damages. The court noted that such damages may be allowed for intentional injury, but not for injuries caused by negligence, such as veterinarian error.
Veterinary Costs – When a companion animal is negligently (or intentionally) injured, compensation for "reasonable and necessary costs" related to his or her veterinary care may be recoverable. In October 2012, the Second District Court of Appeal addressed two cases that presented the same issue of damages beyond market value for a negligently injured animal – one involved veterinarian surgical error that led to a golden retriever’s emergency treatment, while the other dealt with a German shepherd whose leg was amputated after being shot by a neighbor in alleged self defense. Although the replacement value of either dog was little to nothing, veterinary bills totaled over $37,000 and $20,000, respectively.
In both instances, the court permitted
full recovery of veterinary expenses. Without addressing the sticky topics of sentimental value or loss of companionship (neither of which are recoverable in California), the court acknowledged animals as "sentient beings" to be treated as a "specially protected form of property," using terms that most courts have historically avoided and more accurately reflecting the way that many people feel about their pets.
California’s Evolving Legal Landscape
Not long ago, if someone negligently injured your pet in California, the money that you spent to save him or her from injury would not have been recoverable if a similar animal could be purchased or adopted for a nominal value. Today, California law (at least in certain appellate districts) makes it more financially feasible for guardians to pay for a pet’s treatment for injuries resulting from the intentional acts or negligence of another. This is good news, of course, to most guardians in California who rightfully believe that a pet is not an object to simply be discarded when the cost of repair exceeds the cost of replacement.